Ominous, tragic, and austere, Mark Jenkin’s enigmatic, low key chiller Enys Men slowly burrows its way into the psyche of the viewer, and it’s entirely up to the individual as to whether or not something this obtuse takes root. While it will undoubtedly frustrate and vex those who prefer their horror movie storytelling to be a lot more straightforward and accessible, viewers who crave experience, mood, and putting their interpretive skills to good use will find plenty to like in Enys Men. Jenkin’s latest is a stark effort, but not in expected ways.
It’s the spring of 1973, and a lonely researcher and caretaker (Mary Woodvine) spends her days observing the flora and geology on the craggy titular island on the Celtic Sea. (Enys Men roughly translates to Stone Island in Cornish.) There’s not much to do, except for constantly looking at a curious group of flowers, check on the depth of a local well, and constantly read her well loved copy of ecologist Edward Goldsmith’s (then recently published) book, A Blueprint for Survival. The woman’s life is one of constant routine and repetition, with only a radio as her lifeline to supplies and the outside world.
But it’s clear from the start of Enys Men that something isn’t quite right. Jenkin (Bait) leaves it up to the viewer to determine where the unrest lies. There are visions that might not be real. They could be a byproduct of a mind driven to the brink by monotony, the influence of a mysterious lichen that has begun appearing, an unseen and repressed history, paranormal activity tied to a shipwreck, or something to do with the vandalization of a local landmark. Is the issue here psychological, ghostly, religious, ecological, or apocalyptic? Is the film a reflection of the past or a harbinger of what’s to come? Or maybe it’s a combination of all of the above that could never hope to be sorted out, even by the person experiencing it all first hand. At turns, Jenkin plays with the tone of these strange events. Sometimes they’re scary, other times they’re achingly sad, and at points there’s a humour to the surreality at play. Enys Men is a film that deliberately keeps the viewer off guard, and risks alienation for the sake of crafting a surprisingly playful atmosphere of worry and existential dread.
It’s a testament to Jenkin’s vision and resolve that such repetition and obfuscation never feels like drudgery. There’s always something to discover in Enys Men, no matter how slightly or wildly Jenkin deviates between scenes. There are elements of folk horror, body horror, and even domestic drama to be found in Enys Men, but none of these settings overpower the others, and almost paradoxically they don’t seem to be competing for attention. Enys Men just is, and as such it has almost as much in common with works of transcendental literature as it does with films like The Lighthouse, The Wicker Man, and several works from filmmaker Ben Wheatley. Horror, as with adventure, is where one finds it, and the beauty of Enys Men is that it can be discovered in several different locations at the same time without them necessarily being connected to one another.
The sensational textures of Enys Men are lovingly period appropriate. Acting as writer, director, cinematographer, film editor, sound editor, and composer, Jenkin juggles his many hats with highly detailed aplomb. Every aspect of his many jobs is deserving of praise and admiration. The 16mm film stock brings to mind the documentary works of Jacques Cousteau, complete with all of its close-ups of the faces of scientific minded people, post produced sync sound, occasional moments of discolouration, and edits that have been clearly made on the fly with tape instead of a more permanent adhesive. But with this being something closer to a horror film, it also subconsciously makes the viewer question who might be filming something so unnervingly intimate in nature, and perhaps more appropriately, if they should even be seeing this.
The unravelling of whether the events in Enys Men are real or imagined depends on whether the viewer is willing to engage with the material and to possibly fail at finding a clear meaning in the process, even long after the film has ended. I’m sure it causes many to bristle at the perceived fruitlessness of the task, but it’s also a perfect reflection of the character at the centre of Jenkin’s narrative. I wouldn’t claim to have a firm handle on what Enys Men is all about, but I have my theories, and the film both frightened and moved me across a construction that is tightly packed with metaphor yet remarkably relaxed and brief in terms of execution. For some, a film this open to interpretation might be easy to dismiss, but I personally haven’t stopped thinking about it since I watched it.
Enys Men screens as part of the MDFF Selects series at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Thursday, March 30, 2023 at 6:30pm. It opens in Toronto at the Fox Theatre, in Montreal at Cinema du Parc, and VIFF in Vancouver on Friday, March 31, and at Bytowne Theatre in Ottawa on Saturday, April 1.
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