November begins with a nervous twitch -- even the titles are fidgety, flickering like fluorescent light bulbs on the fritz. Photographer Sophie (Courteney Cox) and her lawyer boyfriend Hugh (James LeGros) pull up outside a convenience store and become involved in an armed robbery. The violence is sudden, the color is lurid and saturated, tinted the sickly green of a grimy late-night corner store.
Weeks later, in a world of muted, soft-focus grays and browns, Sophie visits her therapist (Nora Dunn), complaining of headaches and recurring nightmares. She is also feeling guilty about a recent affair with a colleague at the art school where she teaches photography. During one of her lectures, Sophie discovers a mysterious extra slide in her carousel projector. It is a photograph of the convenience store taken the night of the robbery.
The slide inspires an obsessive scrutiny reminiscent of Antonioni's Blow Up, a darkroom littered with fuzzy enlargements and the frustrating exploration of film grain. Through excellent camera, editing and sound work, the film builds to an eerie, horror movie frenzy, blood staining its surfaces. Then it flips back on itself with a second version of events and a third, each a little brighter than the last, with a clearer focus, a cleaner view, reflecting the advice Sophie gives to her students to "assert by excluding" things from the frame.
The photographic "evidence" in November keeps shifting, perspectives tilt and fall apart, crucial pieces dissolve or go missing. Even surveillance tapes fall victim to their own fuzzy electric quality, oblique camera angles miss important action, tape noise blurs out crucial information. The "proof" is suspect, subtly reflecting how modern (mostly American) society has become skeptical of the empirical. The thing observed has become tainted by the limitations of the observer.
In one sequence a detective views photographs of the crime scene, the perpetrator lurking as a blurred, unidentifiable presence in each frame, and deems them, "too arty for their own good." The photographs capture pieces of a murky reality, but fail to help illuminate the bigger picture.
November is the kind of film that forces you to stay till the end to find out what happens, even though the ultimate outcome can be seen from space. It's stylish, but thin and a little familiar. The film's gritty, dream-like world doesn't look as compelling once everything comes into sharp focus, or it looks less important than it seemed when the view was slightly askew.
November by Greg Harrison opens July 29. Starring: Courteney Cox, James LeGros.
Get theaters and show times (at sfgate.com)