Thursday, March 30, 2023

enys men

The comic A Chorus Line song "Dance Ten, Looks Three" kept running through my head while watching Mark Jenkin's Enys Men (the title translated in Cornish as "Stone Island"). The film ultimately feels like a "Looks Ten, Dance Three" kind of a movie. Set on sea swept, rocky cliff on the Cornish coast, Enys Men follows a woman, dubbed in the credits as "the volunteer" (played by Jenkin's partner Mary Woodvine). There is the hypnotic displaying of her daily rituals, (perhaps) in April of 1973, as she dons a strawberry-red raincoat and work boots (brown, with hints of red in the laces), recording the temperature, studying the appearance of flowers (faux-looking, with paper petals and wiry stems), the sound of water as a rock is dropped to the bottom of a well. Every day seems to be marked in pencil as having "no changes." But throughout, there's a busy soundtrack of ticking clocks, the flickering fireplace fire, the oil-glugging strawberry-red scuffed metal generator, the sea, the wind, the scratchy messages from a radio, and the staticky sea hymns (and at one point, light disco funk) from an ivory Dansette. Sometimes the sound feels just a bit off, as when a gull falls into the sea with the sound of shattering glass. It is these sounds and images that create such a compelling mood. Shot with Bolexes on Kodak 16mm film, it simply is one of the most riveting-looking movies released in recent years. The red of that raincoat is absolutely mesmerizing on par with The Red Shoes, and almost vivid enough to carry the substance of the whole film. Sundown-dappled waves appear like smoldering black lava. The movie suggests hauntings [ghostly, unwelcome (?) figures emerge and disappear, sometimes with wide eyes and eerie grins] and there is the sense of the disintegration of time both in narrative and form (in Neon's pre-recorded post-interview after the credits, Jenkin's seemed to infer that the short length of what the cameras would allow to film added to the clipped collage-like feel). The movie recalls Robert Altman's Images and other 1970s pictures where there is a simmering sense of terror within contained isolation. 

Enys Men doesn't really seem to be meant to have some sort of satisfying narrative thread, but there is eventually a dull monotony and lack of continuous surprise (unlike the ever-shifting brilliance in the works of Maya Deren), that make the experience somewhat deadening. Neon's shameless marketing (the trailer is brilliant) of it as a folk horror picture in the vein of Robert Eggers is a bit of a cash-grab stunt. I look forward to reassessing the film later, perhaps as it moves away from its Cannes-buzz and initial release, as I was so drawn to Jenkin's keen cinematic skills (that he did the shivery, metallic score as well, is very impressive). As of now, the movie feels a bit empty--as if striving for a sense of a horror movie (both a haunted suicide and lichen-riven body horror is suggested) or something seemingly significant, but never delivering anything as comparable nor unsettling narratively as the parade of gorgeous images. So the dance may be the under-baked lyricism or the narrative within, and the looks is all of those pictures that abound [those reds! those blues! (a navy teapot / Woodvine's piercing, cereulean eyes]. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

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