The modern preoccupation with dissecting every form of media has made it difficult for audiences to sit with uncertainty. When everything we ponder aloud is just a quick Google search away, or is broken down in an analysis video on YouTube, a film like Enys Men might be frustrating. After all, Mark Jenkin’s film is meant to be felt and experienced more than understood. While the non-linear narrative and slips between fantasy and reality may confuse, and it isn’t exactly folk horror despite the label, it does have quite a bit to say about man’s relationship with nature and society.
The film follows wildlife volunteer (Mary Woodvine) living on a remote island, isolated and alone, making daily observations about a rare flower. There’s a certain tedium to watching her work, despite the bright red slicker she wears when she’s outdoors, especially when her observations are the same day in day out. She gets the generator going, has her tea, makes her food, then the generator turns off and it’s time for bed, where she sits reading The Blueprint for Survival surrounded by candlelight. The sound design makes sure to constantly surround us with nature’s powerful presence, the thunderous sounds of the sea crashing against the island are a constant that’s intermittently broken up by the loud, jarring sound of the generator starting up.
There’s barely any dialogue and human interaction in Enys Men, which allows it to function almost like a silent film, where the abstract images come together to tell a story. We get snippets of the past that occurred on the island: Bal Maidens dancing ritualistically, and Cornish miners glimpsed in the shafts that remain. Man has erected structures over nature, drilling into the earth or building towards the sky, yet have never truly been able to possess dominance over nature. The fact the mere remnants of them remain speaks to how transient man are in the grand scheme of things, while nature is permanent and lasting.
There’s a certain pointlessness to the volunteer’s work, where it’s unclear what her observations are building up to. It’s a stark reminder of modern work culture, where we clock in, clock out, going through all the mundane motions, refusing to acknowledge the sense of futility underneath it all. We work to eat and put food on the table, so preoccupied with our individual smaller picture that it’s easy to overlook the bigger, more daunting realities.
Time begins to collapse, as the volunteer’s past self starts roaming about the space, and inundating visions of the Boatman with his yellow slicker. She’s suppressed these tragedies, but they emerge now, crashing into one another, forcing us to accept the one true bleak reality. In the words of Joseph Conrad: “We live as we dream – alone. While the dream disappears, the life continues painfully.”
We part with the volunteer, as nature overwhelms her body and mind, retreating to the safety of our humdrum existence, where the bustle keeps us distracted from the things that truly matter.
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Enys Men may frustrate and elude some, but for others, the experience of watching the film itself - with its sumptuous imagery and intricate details - is enough to delight
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