Born and raised in Cornwall, England, writer-director Mark Jenkin continues to draw on his local, beloved surroundings with his sophomore film, Enys Men, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Jenkin garnered the attention of the British, and international, film industry with his BAFTA-winning debut feature Bait, which likewise was set in the director’s home county. There are parallels between the two, including the filmmaking style and setting, but beyond that Enys Men is a complete departure. It is an audacious horror film, possibly one of the most testing watches that audiences will see this year. It takes its sweet time and is shrouded in ambiguity, that can be interpreted as a flaw or not, depending on who you ask.
Jenkin’s film follows a woman (Mary Woodvine) who lives on a remote island in isolation, off the coast of Cornwall. Every day, the woman inspects a set of wild, supposedly special flowers. She takes the temperate of the soil, checks the flower’s leaves and then promptly leaves. But before she reaches her cottage over the hill, she drops a rock into an abandoned mineshaft, every day. Upon arriving home, she turns on the petrol-powered generator that gives energy to her home. This routine is shaken up as she is haunted by a slew of ongoing, supposedly waking nightmares of an ominous rock that stands near her house, as well as dreams of a young girl ready to jump off her roof.
Mark Jenkin arguably introduced a new kind of expressionist cinema with Bait. He expands on the hand-crafted, experimental style of filmmaking with Enys Men, this time opting shoot in 16mm colour. The film is set in 1973 and looks like it was made back then. This is due to the combination of Jenkin hand processing the film’s prints and dubbing in sound after-the-fact. It’s a truly special kind of process. A defining part of Jenkin’s cinematic style is his editing and compositional choices. No shot or cut is done without intense meaning. Jenkin utilises a rigid style of editing that continually repeats itself, emphasising the focal point of each shot and can become quite shocking when the convention is broken. The combination of Enys Men‘s cinematography and editing is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film, it is a technical gem.
Jenkin goes further into the realm of unconventionality as large stretches are dialogue-free, with the only sounds being the crashing waves of the Cornish coast. The crackling sound of occasional voices talking stand out as an oddity here, one becomes acquainted to Jenkin’s purely visual approach. Enys Men is largely, on the whole, not that scary but the ideas that it suggests have haunting consequence. There are a few sequences that slip into expressionist horror as Jenkin acts on the repeated motifs that tease a greater, spiritual presence on the island. However, what becomes clear early on is that Enys Men is a film about the effects of grief and seclusion. It has a similar sense of seclusion to The Lighthouse, which conjures its story out of two lighthouse keepers’ isolation. Mary Woodvine’s protagonist suffers from a different kind of seclusion though, as she seemingly regresses back into her past traumas through her mind’s eye. What goes down is unabashadly dark, whilst also being somewhat absurd due to the increasingly delusional perspective of Woodvine’s character.
Mary Woodvine delivers a great, contained performance that remains remarkably focused, especially considering the mundane and cyclical nature of the opening act of the narrative. As things shift further into the unknown, Woodvine becomes a little unhinged, playing various versions of herself at once. Edward Rowe, Jenkin’s lead in Bait, makes a memorable appearence as a doomed past lover. He shows up at a critical point where one begins to question the reality of what’s seen. The spectator begins to wonder, is this all in her head or is this actuality? The answer to such questions are brushed over, but one is able to make some fairly solid conclusions about various pieces of Enys Men‘s puzzle.
Enys Men will be divisive upon its release to audiences around the world. However, there will be droves of cineastes lining up to fall in love with the extreme ambiguity that the film and its finale offers. Having given the movie some time to simmer in the back of my mind, the confusion that plagued me post-watching has turned into fascination. It has grown on me quite substantially in just a couple of days. But what is most extraordinary is the craft on show, it is nothing less than masterful. No one is making films like Mark Jenkin.
This review is from the Cannes Film Festival. NEON will release Enys Men in the U.S.