Mark Jenkin’s follow-up to the attention-grabbing and fiercely Cornish Bait is being sold as ‘folk-horror’ but it’s a bit more experimental than that might suggest. I don’t know if anyone has complained.
Certainly I won’t, since I enjoy an experimental film, especially if it’s one where the experiment works. And Enys Men does – for me.
Not sure about everyone else though. The BFI screening I attended, in the afternoon, was one of many, but still drew a crowd, which is not what you would expect for an experimental film, outside of a festival.
I have to say I was a bit put out. And to make matters worse, one person somewhere behind me had a cold, or worse, and kept sniffing, and occasionally coughing, throughout. It almost made me nostalgic for the days when the afflicted individual would have been forcibly ejected from the cinema by masked-and-gloved attendants and – who knows? – jailed.
Now I had no choice but to try and incorporate this annoyance into the film’s sound design, along with the mysterious mechanical thumping sound that seems to occur every 30 minutes or so, behind the screen in NFT3.
Experimental and abstract as it undoubtedly is, Enys Men isn’t totally obscure. In fact, the film clearly has an (inferred) ’emotional journey’ and a (hidden) narrative, although you soon found out that ‘men’ in the title was pronounced ‘mane’ – Cornish for ‘stone’ – which may have made you feel retrospectively stupid for pronouncing it differently at the box office.
In terms of overt plot, it’s fair to say that there isn’t much.
An unnamed woman (Mary Woodvine) stays in an isolated house on a remote island off the Cornish coast, her only apparent task being a daily check on some (presumably rare) flowers growing at the edge of a nearby cliff. These visits, always followed by her dropping a stone into a mineshaft, end with her writing the date, and ‘no change’ in a notebook back in the cottage.
That’s about it for quite a while in a film that is more about rhythms, textures, atmospheres and sounds than narrative. The woman is haunted by various imaginary or spectral figures – miners, milkmaids, lifeboatmen, pagan worshippers, a preacher and most notably a teenage girl (Flo Crowe) often seen standing on the roof.
At one point we see this girl fall through a glass roof, injuring herself – perhaps fatally.
The only (as far as we can tell) ‘real’ character here is the boatman (Edward Rowe) delivering supplies. Though this encounter with (what appears to be) the outside world doesn’t jolt the film into realistic mode. At one point we see the visitor dancing with the protagonist, the next moment they are pointedly ignoring each other, as if ‘something has happened’.
One film notable for its absence from the BFI season curated by Jenkin to illustrate Enys Men‘s ‘cinematic DNA’ is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a film about a couple haunted by the death of their young daughter, who drowns in a pond in the opening scene.
Presumably this absence doesn’t mean that Don’t Look Now didn’t exert an influence – instead, like the ominous standing stone outside the woman’s cottage in Enys Men, it looms too large, and Roeg’s Walkabout was substituted. But it is Don’t Look Now which provides the key to unlock the film’s narrative.
You can see the film’s influence on Enys Men in the emphasis on the colour red (and specifically the woman’s red mac, echoing the one worn by the girl in the earlier film), in the non-linear approach to time, in the repeated motif of breaking glass, even in the fact that Jenkin’s film is set in 1973.
The films mirror each other in terms of plot too, if we can agree that there is a plot. The girl crashing through the glass roof is, then, the woman’s daughter, who did indeed die. The repetitive actions of the woman performing her daily checks are a ritual – an attempt to ward off something that has already happened: that fall, or deliberate plunge.
This is about grief. The flowers represent the daughter the woman failed to protect, and as they start to be afflicted by lichen, so they reenact this failure. Similarly the scenes with the boatman play out, in truncated, semi-parodic form, the relationship with the girl’s father, which fell apart after the girl’s death.
Eventually the flowers (along with the standing stone outside the cottage) vanish entirely, a final admission of loss. Then they return, at which point the woman is seen deliberately cutting one of the blossoms, indicating acceptance of the loss – and perhaps even an understanding that the death was willed. (If it was.)
Jenkin’s film gives us a succession of eerie and beautiful images and haunting sounds, but underlying it like a myth is Don’t Look Now, not only the film but Daphne Du Maurier’s short story – indeed, one of the pleasing things about Enys Men is that in a sense it brings Du Maurier’s story ‘home’ to Cornwall.
In Don’t Look Now the grieving process is led astray, interrupted by a kind of grisly joke. There’s no maniac dwarf here, though, and grief is permitted to take its course, all the way to a suggestion of healing.
Enys Men is, then an enlightened horror film in which menace and renewal come from the same source – from nature, from the earth. The rumblings from under the ground that trouble the woman indicate the seismic shifts in her unconscious that threaten her stability but will eventually deliver some kind of recovery.
Home is where the horror is in Skinamarink, another experimental film being flogged as a scary movie. Another high turn out too, this time at the Prince Charles Cinema, where Kyle Edward Ball’s feature debut has proved to be an unexpected hit. Not with me though.
The idea is promising – two children wake up in the night to find the house mysteriously changed: there’s a chair on the ceiling; the doors have vanished (so has the toilet); Dad is gone, and whatever mysterious entity has replaced him seems less than reliable, advising little Kevin at one point to ‘put a knife in your eye’.
Which he does – I think. It’s a bit hard to tell because of Ball’s insistence on shooting the ‘action’ obliquely, so that mostly you see only the legs of the characters. I found this rather distracting, and spent too much time wondering about the rationale here. Perhaps there was some legal reason why their faces couldn’t be shown? Or a budgetary one?
I suppose I have to conclude that this was an artistic decision, but one that puzzles more than it intrigues. Is it meant to replicate a ‘child’s eye view’? This makes less sense when the legs belong to children.
There are vague intimations of child abuse – a telephone conversation in which the father is heard telling the mother (?) that Kevin has ‘fallen down the stairs’ – perhaps suggesting that the demonic entity is dad’s Bad Self (or the less agreeable aspects of him which the kids cannot incorporate into their daytime existence).
At one point the evil entity says of the daughter, Kaylee: ‘I took her mouth away’, hinting at the secrecy imposed by the abuser.
Perhaps all this justifies the oblique approach, but for me this sprawling expansion of a short film came up short on atmosphere and tension. Surely a film that aspires to be terrifying needs to establish some identification with the characters, instead of going out of its way to render them obscure. Doesn’t it?
There are some dreamily fascinating individual scenes here that seem to be leading somewhere interesting (the digital images have been processed to imitate the seething grain of old videotape, so that spectral figures are always threatening to emerge out of an unstable darkness). There are also some jump scares, irritating if you aren’t fully ‘on board’. It seems that somewhere between the meditative/cerebral and the visceral the film has lost its way, as with Alex Garland’s Men.
Or perhaps I am simply missing some key that would have unlocked the mysteries (or a way into the mysteries) of Skinamarink in the way that Don’t Look Now did for Enys Men.
The title comes from a kid’s song. I’m not sure if it features on the (grating) soundtrack to the old 30’s cartoons continually playing on the TV set here* but you can look it up online.
Skinamarink – or is it Skidamarink? – is a kind of silly love song for kids: ‘skinamarink’ means: ‘I love you’. Is it reassuring that love can so easily be replaced or filled out with nonsense? One thing this might suggest in terms of the film’s meaning is that parental love is a concept only a kid could fall for.
Or perhaps – similarly – it suggests that parental love has a complexity that no child could fully comprehend. Including, as it very well might, difficult elements which one might need to be ‘grown up’ in order to appreciate.
Perhaps my own difficulty in appreciating the film echoes Kevin and Kaylee’s inevitable failure to comprehend their own situation. Perhaps, in expecting an easy identification with a central character or characters I’m expecting too much from individuals who are not fully-formed (and never will be, it seems).
In which case my not getting on with the film is a measure of the film’s success; it has written me out of the picture. And maybe that is the key: the realisation that the film is an artefact sufficient unto itself – its static, oblique camera angles a private language, the object meditating upon itself, and the characters trapped within it.
A ‘found footage’ film whose footage doesn’t want, or need, to be found. A house with no doors – no way out, and no way in either.
Is there even a director? Or has Kyle Edward Ball left the thing to its own devices? Like a bad parent whose child has consequently grown up strange, resistant to understanding (subtitles have been applied to spell out much of the muted dialogue).
Thus the child, the film, has become truly independent. But seething with rage. At the end, the evil entity appears to be have turned to the audience, as if it has just noticed us – or the camera. What’s your name?, it whispers.
At which point I can begin to understand how this might be scary after all.
*Here at least is one aspect of the mise en scene which can partly be related to legal and budgetary concerns, Betty Boop et al being out of copyright – also apparently the reason we are soon to be treated to Winnie The Pooh reconfigured as a slasher movie, a prospect that has so excited the patrons of the Prince Charles Cinema that the first showing has sold out.