Words: Felix McIntyre (He/Him)
The woman sitting next to me during the screening remarked to me that she had recently moved up to Glasgow from the Cornish coast, the dramatic setting for Enys Men and Jenkin’s own home. She wondered if the film would make her homesick. Her antithetical journey from the U.K.’s most isolated corner to one of its busiest intrigued me. I ask her, why Glasgow? Her reply is cryptic. ‘You’ll see,’ she says, gesturing towards the screen. I imagine she was alluding to the similarities in geography between Scotland’s west coast and Cornwall’s. Plenty of granite, I suppose. But, ‘It was mostly the hay fever,’ she concluded. It was around this moment that Jenkin himself took to the stage and introduced the film sparingly. He insisted as filmmakers like to do, that the picture spoke for itself.
This was a lie. And how glad I am! Enys Men is a wholly experimental film. It is to Bait, Jenkin’s debut film, what Lynch’s Mulholland Drive was to Blue Velvet: equally spellbinding yet posing more challenges to its audience. What little grounding in realism Bait had is nowhere to be seen in Enys Men. The film plays with time, consciousness, and reality in such a way that leaves you wondering whether anything truly happened at all by the end of the film.
The plot is fairly straightforward: a middle-aged naturalist is living, seemingly temporarily, on a remote Cornish island, where she is documenting the state of a rare wildflower that sits on the edge of a cliff. Rather like Chantel Akerman’s seminal Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, we painstakingly follow the woman’s daily routine. Time after time, We observe her observations until, slowly, cracks begin to appear. Lichen begins to grow on the flowers and on the woman’s torso.
The film spirals into an abrasive montage of events, with the protagonist finding herself plagued by uncanny horrors. Miners emerge from within the island, and priests and dancers accompany freak natural accidents, which are all interspersed with unsettling shots of the protagonist in a variety of forms. Whether these occurrences are ghosts, visions, or other supernatural manifestations, they are strung together in a distinctly Jenkian way; he favours static medium shots that favour symbolism and framing.
Enys Men is a story told through sound, smothering the viewer under the epic force of mother nature. The abrasiveness is created largely by Jenkin’s signature choppy editing style and intricate sound design. He explained after the screening that so much of the film is driven by sound largely due to its low-budget nature. He talks of spending hours in the studio by himself recording the entire film’s audio track, spending very little in the process. Jenkin has managed to capture the intense sonority of the wind, ocean, and earth in a way that would be hard to have imagined possible on the screen, let alone with a budget such as this.
Britain is experiencing an indie film renaissance, with Mark Jenkin leading this resurgence. Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Ben Sharrock’s Limbo, and Charlotte Wells’s smash-hit tearjerker Aftersun are stellar examples of this fresh talent. In the southwest of England alone, Jenkin’s stomping ground, there is a ferment of creativity which is especially fascinating with folk and pagan culture. Intertwined with the same creative scene as Jenkin’s cohort (specifically producer Denzil Monk) is the Stone Club, a group of ‘stone enthusiasts’ who gather together and marvel at menhirs and dig into the cultural history of the pagan land on which they live. Similarly, musicians have congregated to form ‘Shovel Dance Collective,’ a group intent on exploring British folk traditions.When the Q&A ended, I got up to leave. I bade the woman beside me farewell and hoped, out loud, that she would not run into any ill-meaning flowers in her Glaswegian mission of hayfever avoidance. But as Enys Men had intuitively taught us, the power of the natural environment: the flowers, the ocean, the wind, and the dark, one must be ever cautious.