A middle-aged woman (Mary Woodvine) lives alone on an island dominated by an ancient stone. Every day, she goes through the same mysterious ritual, checking unusual flowers on the cliff, dropping a stone down an old mineshaft, walking up to the stone. As spring comes, she is faced with increasingly strange occurrences.
A cross between folk horror and nature documentary, Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men is as idiosyncratic as his acclaimed first feature, Bait. Told through poetic visuals, it is similarly shot on grainy 16mm, in colour this time. Rooted in Jenkin’s Cornish childhood, Enys Men was conceived in response to audiences’ reactions to Bait: the foreboding tension in that fishing village drama had led viewers to expect a horror film, which prompted the director to make one. Enys Men is anything but straightforward genre cinema, though: as with Bait, Jenkin uses the cinematic grammar of the past, this time taking inspiration from the 1970s, and reconfigures it into a revelatory experience.
On a deserted island overlooked by an ancient stone, a woman (Mary Woodvine) takes a daily walk to the cliff to monitor a bunch of peculiar flowers. As the woman goes through her repetitive routine, anxious to record any changes, the camera meticulously observes the choppy sea, the dark cliffs, the seagulls and the heath. It is not just the wildlife that is attentively documented, but human artefacts too, old and new: ruined buildings, rusting tracks, a red generator. Its title meaning ‘stone island’ in Cornish, Enys Men offers a sensorial immersion into the textures, shapes and colours of the place, charting both the harsh beauty of the landscape and the evocative traces of human activity.
According to Jenkin, the woman is a Wildlife Trust volunteer, but in the film the purpose of her activities remains unexplained. The enigmatic accumulation of observations leads to seeing things that are not only beyond the limits of wildlife documenting, but well beyond the realm of the visible. The yellow raincoat and the broken nameplate of a boat she finds among the rocks seem like clues or charms that can conjure up the ghosts of the past: women in identical bonnets, grimy miners, a rugged seaman, a young girl in flares standing precariously on a roof all start to appear and disappear with alarming regularity.
The carefully constructed sound design potently contributes to the feeling of haunting that pervades the film. The crackling of the radio, the disembodied voices over the airwaves, the clanking of metal in the mineshaft create a forbidding atmosphere whose threats are realised, although not in a conventional way. Like the visuals, the soundtrack diverts habitual horror motifs from their expected uses. Sinister low drones and strident frequencies build up tension and genuine unease, but they are made all the more disquieting by the jarring contrast with the nature imagery or mundane objects they often accompany.
As May Day approaches, the flowers start to change, the stone’s presence seems more ominous, and the invasive lichen grows in impossible places. The elliptical sense of tension culminates in an eerie sequence where white-clad children bearing hawthorn branches sing outside the woman’s house. These folk-horror elements are used in an oblique way that revitalises their power. Enys Men shares with folk horror its concern with what lies deep in the land, with buried archaic connections between humans and natural forces, which still exert an influence over the living. In Jenkin’s film, these connections are rooted in the physical reality of death, in the decomposed bodies of past inhabitants whose broken-down components have become part of the sea and the soil.
There is a playful element of eco-horror, nodding to The Day of the Triffids (1962), in the flowers with their weird red pistils, and the lichen that is infused with a life of its own. But the lichen also has a central thematic resonance, and the film draws on the real strangeness of this plant-like life form that is not a plant: a composite organism formed of fungus and alga, which can break up rock and help disseminate minerals into the soil, lichen embodies symbiosis and the dissolution of boundaries between separate realms.
This dissolution of boundaries lies at the heart of the film. As the narrative progresses, the demarcation between reality and perception melts away. Temporal planes merge and bleed into one another. The notions of presence and absence become elusive and relative. As the woman interacts with the apparitions, her sense of self becomes blurred and unstable, and through her fragmentary impressions we are led to experience the world of the island as a rich, disorientating coexistence of multiple dimensions. Her bedtime reading is A Blueprint for Survival (1972), and perhaps Enys Men aims to offer its own transformative manual for the unnerving complexities of human experience.