Enys Men Review: The Horror of Boredom
There’s a reason why people joke about how nobody wants to hear someone else’s dreams. They’re personal experiences that often don’t make a lick of sense to anyone else and can never truly be adequately communicated; they’re something we pay therapists to listen to. In a way, though, a lot of art is like this — a person or a collective trying to tell people about their dream.
Joan Didion once famously said as much in an interview with The Paris Review in 1978, when she was asked to clarify how writing is a hostile act. “Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream,” replied Didion.
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The mostly acclaimed new film, Enys Men, is a so-called horror movie that takes this pretty literally. It’s an extremely dreamy movie, and often feels like watching a woman’s nightmares, though not the explicitly dark, Lynchian kind which is often deemed ‘nightmarish.’ For a very select group of viewers (mostly critics and intellectuals), this will be greatly effective; for most people, it will be interminably boring.
Perhaps that’s intentional, though. Enys Men seems to follow a woman who loses her grip on reality and temporality after being stuck in an endless cycle of boredom and repetition. She begins to hallucinate, experiencing different moments simultaneously, and perhaps witnessing ghosts of the past. By the end of the film, most viewers may be wishing they’d be graced with a touch of hallucinatory madness to distract from all the boredom, too.
What Is Enys Men About?
Enys Men is set on a Cornish island (Stone Island, the Cornish translation of the title), where a woman known only as The Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) seems to live an isolated and ritualistic existence. She’s a slightly older woman, with detailed lines on her face and a long scar across her belly. She reads a book entitled A Blueprint for Survival, which is actually a text originally published in a 1971 edition of The Ecologist; it’s one of the earliest scientific warnings about apocalyptic climate change, which hints at the allegorical meaning behind the film.
It’s not entirely clear what The Volunteer is doing on the island, or what she’s volunteering for. She keeps a diary, informing the viewer that it’s late April 1973, and she keeps track of the temperature and her observations. Day after day, her observations simply read, “No changes.” Changes to what? Her days consist of running the generator, going for walks along the stony cliffs, checking seven white flowers, and tossing one stone a day down a caliginous well. At the bottom of all that darkness lies an old, inoperative mine. She watches one sole bird fly overhead, takes baths, and tries to communicate on the radio, eagerly awaiting the May 1st shipment of supplies, including petrol for her dying generator.
The days drag on, with little to no dialogue or purpose. Strange editing and incongruous imagery suggests that something is going on in the woman’s head. A young girl may or may not live in another room of the house; she may or may not be an apparition of The Volunteer’s memories, a ghost, or the older woman at a younger age. She likes to stand in precarious places atop the overgrown, dilapidated house, and she’s mostly ignored.
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Other visions begin to appear — seven bal maidens (women who were once employed by the mines to do manual labor), dirty men hidden underground in the mine shafts, an old preacher in 19th-century garb. Is the block universe theory being proven, or is she going mad? What do the visions suggest> What is going on? Well, that may be the wrong question. One should more accurately ask, “Why do we care?”
Enys Men Is Not a Scary Film — It’s a Slow Mystery
In 1968, a 48-hour-long film premiered titled The Longest Most Meaningless Movie in the World. Enys Men is certainly not a literally unwatchable film like that, but it can feel like it’s 48 hours long and utterly pointless. Yes, it does dress itself up in hidden meanings that certain viewers will love to parse out; for the rest of us, ‘long and meaningless’ are sufficient terms.
The film has been described as a psychological horror movie, but it’s honestly not that at all. It’s a bit eerie, but it’s more of a mystery, a self-indulgent exercise in obfuscation that beckons viewers to solve its puzzles. Enys Men is so willfully enigmatic and borderline incomprehensible, that the narrative isn’t mysterious, but rather the mystery itself — different people will have altered takes on what the actual plot of Enys Men even is. At its most superficial, the film simply details a woman losing her mind after a lengthy period of solitude.
Fine, boredom can certainly drive someone to insanity. Horror cinema has a great lineage of depicting this, from Repulsion to The Lighthouse, but films like those are simultaneously scary and mean something. Enys Men provides so little in terms of scares and potential meaning that this interpretation falls flat. Why is she losing her mind? Why these particular images? The viewer isn’t even given information about the character herself, other than the fact that she fell through glass and has a scar. Ultimately, most audiences won’t care whether she’s sane or insane, and how The Volunteer became one or another.
Maybe Mining Is the Meaning of Enys Men
There is one interpretation that could provide some method to this madness, but putting the pieces together still doesn’t add up to much. Director Mark Jenkins’ last film, Bait, was sociopolitical in nature, about gentrification and the modern world invading Cornwall. Enys Men is also extremely Cornish, and seems preoccupied with the mining industry and its relationship to climate change and labor rights.
The aforementioned bal maidens, which briefly appear in Enys Men, were often treated to poor working conditions and suffered health problems as a result of their work for the mining companies. The ghostly miners beneath the island seem to be other abused laborers who perhaps died in a mine accident. The mining industry was hugely important in Cornwall but has obviously suffered a great decline everywhere, while its effects on the environment and former workers are still seen to this day. The seven flowers, indicative of the seven bal maidens, slowly die throughout Enys Men, which could represent all this.
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Of course, the film is slowly marching toward May 1st, 1973, which was a May Day for the ages. That holiday celebrates workers’ rights, and on that date is 1973, more than 400 thousand UK workers marched in the Midlands alone. In Enys Men, someone can be heard on the radio shouting, “Mayday!” The emergency word could certainly correlate to that May Day protest.
Mark Jenkin Creates a Unique Vibe
But where does this get us? An experimental film can be analyzed, and meaning can be discovered, but does that redeem any of the boredom, confusion, and time-suck of it all? Not for most people. Yes, some people will enjoy piecing together the puzzle here. Others may simply be mesmerized by Enys Men; with the decrepit celluloid of its Bolex 16mm film, the unsubtle aesthetic of a poorly preserved ’70s film, and the ceaseless atmospheric score, it’s certainly a vibe.
There should be more filmmakers like Mark Jenkin, who is the film’s director, cinematographer, writer, and composer. He’s passionate and has an extremely distinct vision; he and his crew also made the entire film in a carbon-neutral way, compared to the 3,000 metric tons of carbon on average produced by most films. He’s inspiring and a truly iconoclastic auteur, whose work combines English folk horror like The Wicker Man with the editing of Nicolas Roeg and the ’70s throwbacks of Look Around You.
Jenkin definitely has cool dreams to tell viewers about. Enys Men, though, is not one of them. It’s a mysteriously muddled affair that might be interesting to glimpse in a museum, but is pretentiously boring to watch as a film. Film4 Productions presents Enys Men, a Bosena production in association with Sound Image Cinema Lab. NEON will distribute the film beginning March 31.