Director Mark Jenkin’s unique “voice” is back with Enys Men – but will he speak to us?
Cinematekene er et samarbeid om felles digitale visninger på cinematekene i Bergen, Kristiansand, Lillehammer, Oslo, Stavanger, Tromsø og Trondheim. Montages setter gjennom ukentlige artikler fokus på filmene i utvalget. Mark Jenkin sin nye film Enys Men (2022) vises fra og med torsdag 27. april – sjekk tidspunkter i oversikten hos ditt cinematek.
P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Bait (2019) bowled me over and I was an instant fan. I waited with bated breath (pardon the expression!) for what Mark Jenkin would give us next. The good news is the power of his filmmaking is unabated. (Sorry!) The bad news (maybe?) is there will be no easy ride in Enys Men.
The familiar visual power is here in abundance, once more in stripped down 16mm but this time steeped in full-grain – as in extra grainy – colour. The film shimmers and crackles with a sort of rough-hewn visual noise, the cinematic equivalent of a Vox AC30 guitar amp at full throttle. The context is new and hard to categorise: Horror? No. A whole new genre, maybe? Unease, Disquiet, Confusion…?
We’re marooned, at any rate, far away and long before. These are pre-digital times, no less, so the radio, a retro-futurist shortwave, will sputter into life without warning, first with a lonely ether-wall of white noise, then a distant voice boxed and reduced to scratchy airwave signal. This cuts like a metalworker’s file through the enveloping silence of the island of Enys Men. Beyond such ethereal encounters, the nameless wildlife researcher rehearses her daily ritual all alone – apparently. Day after day she takes the hillside flowers’ temperature, casts a pebble into the deep dark well, skirts the strange rock-formation obelisk on the ridge, and returns to her little cottage to brew some tea and update her records. Ah, the beauty of that endangered species, the analogue ledger!
The solitude is nonetheless disturbed – in every sense of the word. Enigmatic, verging on ominous, companions pop up just the same, with an uncannily random regularity. Indeed, she warns one of them, a young woman, not to be getting up on the porch roof (spoiler alert!), though up she goes regardless, to stand and stare and, finally, to fall – as she must. We might well surmise this is the unnamed protagonist herself, her younger self, that is, for the damage wrought by her fall remains visible, scored across her belly. The scar’s mystery deepens further as it becomes home to a steadily growing colony of lichen, thus suffering the same fate as the flowers she has dutifully observed. Time slips jarringly, inscrutably, our flesh-and-blood ‘heroine’ readily eliding with displaced ghost.
One of the film’s most powerful moments is when running, singing children appear out of nowhere, as apparitions are accustomed, and come tumbling down the hillside. Their song fills the air with a mournful beauty. Then, with a chill as deep to the bone as it is hard to explain, they are suddenly turned as one towards us, in full voice, an assembled junior choir. They ‘people’ the garden, their backdrop the ‘now’ dilapidated walls and gutted windows of the cottage. They signal another temporal – or spiritual – displacement and an indeterminate but gnawing sense of loss. The uncanny backdrop cements the power of this visualisation. In its dissolution, corpse-like, door and windows like open wounds, the cottage ironically takes on a sort of life – or undeath.
This all brings us to the good news about Mark Jenkin’s latest offering. It is a thing of beauty – visually, musically, atmospherically – a slow-burning, mesmerising watch-and-listen, especially on the big screen. The film enfolds us in its rituals, frames and motifs with all the warmth of a shroud. Paradoxically, this also brings us to the bad news or, at least, news of more uncertain import. At the level of pure experience, I came out of Enys Men at once awed and disappointed. Perhaps the strongest impression left by the screening came in the form of a nagging question: What just happened?
Well, one thing is clear. This was another encounter with genius, something bound to confound expectations, as any Tarantino fan will be bound to attest. The metaphor is apposite, not just because of Quentin’s appetite for violence but also his sense of license: the liberties he wilfully takes with his audience, his readiness to show us who’s boss. My take on Tarantino will have to wait for another time. Something very different is happening here, compared to what I would describe as the vanities of movies like Inglourious Basterds (2009) or Django Unchained (2012). I digress.
Was I really expecting a smooth ride? The meeting is the point, yet the devil is in the meeting, that unique and universal encounter between auteur and audience. As I left the cinema and contemplated writing my review, I couldn’t help thinking, not about Tarantino but Ridley Scott, his Blade Runner (1982) and its many bad reviews, not to mention the lukewarm audience reactions.
I couldn’t help thinking about Joy Division on my first hearing, when frontman Ian Curtis had no more than a week or two left to live. I don’t even remember the track, just an impression of how it seemed to sound, which I can only recall now with an accompanying Gestalt switch. Back then it just sounded wrong, aka bad: blokes who can’t play their instruments not letting that prevent them from making an infernal racket. I wasn’t ready for Joy Division; we weren’t ready for Blade Runner. Am I – or you – ready for Enys Men? And does it matter if we’re not? Who are ‘we’ in this context? For whom is Enys Men…?
I thought about the last question quite a bit in recent days as, in the spirit if not the substance – and certainly not the expense-account – of proper investigative journalism, I inserted myself into the Cornish landscape to try and do justice to this strange Cornish film. I discover I’m much better primed for this now. I want to watch it again. I don’t watch many films over, but the truly special ones almost demand it. How many times have I seen Blade Runner, in how many different versions? The special ones ask us to think things over, then come back when we’re ready to continue the conversation. In the meantime, the deep roots of Jenkin’s work in this strange half-forgotten corner of Europe have become a little clearer. Now, in true cinematic style, I must state the following: Two weeks earlier…
Two weeks earlier I had my first direct encounter with Enys Men in an eerily empty cinema, Tromsø’s beautiful 1916-vintage Verdensteatret, no less – thank you TIFF! This made perfect sense for the proverbial stranger in a strange land, as I was in those days. The land, Cornwall, is now a little better known, though no less strange for all that, and the strangeness of this movie is a smidgeon less perplexing.
Here, for what it’s worth, are my first impressions, a little in the phenomenological style favoured by that true exemplar of theatre-seat criticism, the late great Roger Ebert: I was mesmerised, unsettled, puzzled, and confused. In the thrall of the deserted imaginary island, time seems hypnotically suspended but also, one begins to suspect, deceptively displaced. Here’s another suspicion: There is a logic at work here but shrouded in its lightly articulated, always enigmatic expressions, some narrative frame tantalisingly close at hand and yet near impossible to decipher.
My gut reaction was not to pan the film but certainly to gently chide it, as a few others have done, for its narrative weakness or underdevelopment. This seemed no less compelling in the light of the conspicuous narrative sophistication of Jenkin’s previous work, Bait. That was above all a damn good yarn, aided and abetted by its offbeat cinematic packaging. It was worthy, in its own way, of any sea shanty, the time-honoured vehicle of choice for stories told – or sung – in these parts, that is, a land unfit for landlubbers. I should be as wary of dismissing Jenkin’s latest work as just another story-light art film, as I should of dismissing Cornwall itself as just another English county, noted chiefly for being remote and impoverished.
There is a substance here, more poetry than prose, which should be taken seriously. Like good poetry it demands a careful reading and a sensitivity to its emotional register. Like many a good poem, the emotional engagement is heightened by a remarkable narrative sophistication, just not in an overly digestible form. A good illustration is how the words of her younger self in response to the admonishment to stay off the roof – ‘But I must’ – gain their chilling effect. It is the work of the shadowy ‘narrative in the wings.’ Where are we at this moment? In the half-conscious recollections of a lost soul perhaps, in a monologue/dialogue with her former self.
The film’s emotional register resonated more clearly with me, at any rate, as I followed the cliffs southwards from Crackington Haven, and never clearer than atop a hill aways inland. It was here I found a little pub nestling in the skirts of an old stone church, tucked behind the gates (built later by Norman conquerors) of Launceston, the ancient capital of the country (not a typo!) that is Cornwall.
In the half-concealed interstices of this film, there is a story of love and loss. Once beloved, now half-forgotten souls periodically burst through the skein of a sort of memorial ritual, a monument in 16mm. They are all those who tried and failed, as they eventually must, to eke out an existence on – and especially beyond – these windswept, half-barren shores. They are the life in the face of death; they are the death that underscores the meaning of a life, a little in the manner of the tragic yet not so tragic protagonist of Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999). In homage to that beloved film, I hereby unofficially rename this one ‘Cornish Beauty.’
Of course, I wanted more of the rebellious spirit of Bait. I wanted more ‘new kitchen sink’ stories of ordinary, working people. For these are stories scarcely told, let alone told in compelling, novel ways, as that remarkable movie managed to do. I cannot reduce Jenkin to a one-trick pony, however, any more than I, as one more casual Cornwall tourist, can crush the spirit of its people. We see another side of such people in Jenkin’s latest work, and we see them in a different way. Indeed, we’re even getting to know them a little better, just as we might on those occasions when a quick pub-lunch, with obligatory Cornish pasty, turns into a long afternoon session with all the neighbourhood’s usual suspects.
Enys Men, non-existent as the island itself may be, belongs among the shores and denizens of that strange country. The film represents as substantial and strong an edifice as any of the landscape’s weird and wonderful rock-formations, and is no less at home. To truly appreciate it, we must dare to go there, literally or figuratively, not as grasping tourists but with the open hand of friendship. For in the end – and there’s the rub – we are all strangers in a strange land.