‘Enys Men’: Cannes Review: – Deadline
Mark Jenkin’s film in 2019 Bait had the rare distinction of being a genuine unexpected find, ranking high on UK critics’ best of the year lists after a modest arthouse release by the BFI. The black-and-white film’s experimental style was emphasized throughout its media coverage, nodding to avant-garde authors like Stan Brakhage, Derek Jarman and Guy Maddin – all directors with an interest in grain. literal film and video (indeed, Jenkin would have developed the negative with coffee and baking soda, then distressed the image by hand). Add in post-sync sound and you have a film more likely to be screened to two people and a dog in a smoky 1960s underground movie club than to win a BAFTA.
For all its formal complexities, however, Bait had a very traditional narrative, being the story of a Cornish fisherman who sees his village gentrify after selling his house to a couple of wealthy foreigners. Enys Men, Jenkin’s entry into Directors’ Fortnight here at Cannes, despite the upgrade to color and a significantly higher budget, is actually a tougher sell; there is only one main character, and everything that happens to him is presented as a kind of delirium. To like Baitit’s pretty parochial militant (which has its advantages), but there’s a huge amount of ideas and hints in the mix here that are specialized even in gender circles.
Jumping the gun a bit, Jenkin describes his film as “a lost Cornish folk horror,” which saves everyone a lot of time. Initially an unprecedented fashion in the 1970s with films such as The wicker man and The Blood on Satan’s Clawpopular horror has grown exponentially as a cultural touchstone ever since, primarily among British directors such as Ben Wheatley, Peter Strickland, Corin Hardy and the creative team behind the cult BBC series. Interior No. 9.
At the heart of the popular horror thesis is the notion that nature is all-powerful and completely unknowable, which is why more than a few popular horrors – which generally take rational people from their civilized comfort zones and put them at the mercy of an overwhelming primal. force – turn into psychedelia, like Enys Men Is.
Unusually, Jenkin’s film centers on a woman (Mary Woodvine), who is referred to in the final credits, and there alone, as The Volunteer. What did she volunteer for? It’s hard to say. His daily routine, which we see with hypnotic repetition, involves checking the weather, plant life, and, in a ritual involving a disused mine shaft, most likely sea level.
The island is deserted, but there are heathen stones that radiate unearthly energy, and The Volunteer begins to sense the presence of a long-extinct mining community. At the same time, she flashes on moments from her past and catches glimpses of what might be going on – no wonder she’s wearing a bright red raincoat like the one made famous by Nicolas Roeg don’t look nowa seminal film in terms of editing, with its provocative blend of past, present and future.
Roeg is just one of many melting pot influences in a film that casts its director as a middle-aged man (mid-40s). Enys Men is simply replete with references that Jenkin will have knowingly or unknowingly consumed – the visual style is reminiscent of public information films – and it seems unlikely that he doesn’t now know that Cornwall was the setting for Hammer’s 1966 chiller The plague of zombieswhich involves Haitian voodoo in a Cornish tin mine.
Many literary echoes can also be found, largely in children’s fiction – books like Marianne Dreams, Charlotte Sometimes and The owl serviceand, thanks to the internet, we could even put the once-lost 1976 HTV series, Stone Children or the Hammer House of Horror episode “Two Faces of Evil” in the mix.
That doesn’t mean that Enys Men is a pastiche of these things rather than an evocation: the multimedia equivalent of a wall of sound and an immersive experience made even more haunting by its sparing use of ambient noise and folk music. When it ends, Jenkin’s film leaves you with the curious feeling that the real movie is about to begin. It is annoying; a feeling that is both unexpected and, oddly enough, quite satisfying.