On a first viewing, the actual narrative of Enys Men (the second film from Bait (2019) director, Mark Jenkin) was somewhat unknowable to me. I could feel the ways it could form together, the ways I could sort it to make a clear, linear sense; however, what it meant to me was clear, how it made me feel was clear, and the ideas I took away with it were indelible. It is certainly a film to rewatch, as moments towards the end suggest narrative shifting information, but the literal is certainly not the point. It is constructed so as to obfuscate meaning, a story told (or merely gestured at) in a fractured and distorted way, one in which subjectivity commands the visual field more than objectivity (is what we see really happening?). It does not want to be solved, it does not want to be pieced together. It is intentionally fractured, intentionally obscure and, in this, the right kind of viewer will find such reward.
On its simplest level, Enys Men is a film about an unnamed woman (Mary Woodvine), in 1973 (seemingly), on an uninhabited island off of the Cornish coast and the daily observations she makes. She is engaging in some kind of scientific study: she goes to them seem the same specific flowers every day, checks the temperature of the ground around them, drops a stone down the same deep well (listening for the sound it makes), and partakes in other ritualistic gestures (the same shot of a boot hitting the same piece of ground, for example). She writes up her observations in the same book (date, temperature, general notes (for now, a repetition of no change)). Her evenings take on repetitive form: she starts up the generator, makes a cup of tea, reads the same book, often takes a bath. It is hypnotic repetition captured with clarity, where tasks become gestures and habits. The closest filmic connection is Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles (1975): unflinching explorations of feminine isolation in which one’s identity becomes a series of repetitions, of ritualised motions. Like with that film, the repetitions are a way of chronicling divergence: small changes take on huge meaning and greater shifts in the established routine feel monumental.
It is a truly affecting portrait of isolation. The landscape is often the dominant image, as we return to footage of it time and time again, presenting repetitions and cycles as much as Mary Woodvine’s character does. There are clear evocations of emotional landscapes, using the surrounding geography as a simulacrum for an internal state. It is bleak, it is isolated, it is somewhat uninhabitable, and it merely repeats. The thing is, in this film, nothing is told to us (by way of direct narrative, at least). There is very infrequent dialogue and looping linguistic motifs, phrases, do come out of radios (two way ones for communication as well as your classic MW/LW analogue radios). These sounds are use contrapuntally, layered over disparate images or just existing as points of unexplained discord.
This is the contrapuntal as filmmaking, where the expression is more a collage of assorted (though connected) sounds and images, laced together as artistic expression, more than it is a traditional ‘feature film’. Time seems to take on a contrapuntal nature, existing at odds to the imagery and our narrative expectations. We have this clear sense of chronicled time, through the record in the book, yet we also exist outside of time, as images of history break into the present and images that we will discover, truly, later are forced into earlier parts of the film. This conveys the isolation, and sense of desolation, perfectly. The film oppresses the viewer with precise, and beautifully rendered, sound and vision that is oppressive only because it evades clear meaning. The thematic impact is deeply apparent, though; the feel of the film undeniable.
To encapsulate Enys Men through comparison, think of it as the aforementioned Jeanne Dielman colliding with Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), expressed through the sensibility of British folk-horror, while maintaining the feel of Shirley Jackson, or of the classic British ghost story. None of this is spoiler, or any insight into the literal content, it instead hints at approach. This ethereality, this oldness (the sense of tradition) is endemic to the approach to filmmaking. Enys Men is shot on 16mm using an old Bolex camera. It has the feeling of analogue grit that Bait did, only this time it is in colour. This unique visual field, a film out of time in 2023, is populated by scuffs and distortions and uses the possibilities of colour so well. A red coat, and the red stamen of the flowers, is allowed to be a clear visual motif due to the aesthetic. The visuals rise up out of a lost past, a different kind of cinema we left along the way. An interesting reference point, though a visually distinct one, would be The Devils (1971), a film that also feels like it exists from a parallel cinematic history where the medium was used in such a different way.
Mark Jenkin is just using cinema. Every aspect, even the fundamental nature of how the images are developed, is part of his expressive toolset. Each image, each sound, it is all deeply intentional. The effect is a compelling and elliptical nightmare, a haunted dreamscape that works perfectly because the film itself feels uncanny. It is all built around Mary Woodvine’s performance, a point of humanity amongst surreal and overlapping imagery. She is given so little to say but her performance speaks volumes. This is a film defined by small gestures building up, by the search for slight divergence. Her performance has all the mystery it needs alongside a raw clarity. She is beyond magnetic, the central pull of the film and her ambiguous affectations beguile. She combines frankness with ethereality, a sense of distance with one of intimacy. In this film about obsession and isolation, about haunted pasts, all of this is on her face and in here movements. It is just a spellbinding performance.
That’s the film, though: spellbinding. It exists as part of a wider cinematic history, with clear reference points, but it is never anything else than utterly unique. It shifts between genres: is it science fiction? is it horror? is it just character drama? is it psychological study? is it a Matryoshka doll of period pieces within period pieces? It is, fundamentally, its own thing. A completely chilling and transporting watch where lichen becomes a jump scare. It is all from the filmmaking, this astonishing filmmaking that exhibits mastery of mise-en-scène. Everything matters and everything is left to the viewer. An expression of raw cinema that affects in the way only cinema can: an overwhelming barrage of visual and aural ideas that speaks right to your soul.