Purgatory is When You Run Out of Tea: Enys Men (2023) - Reviewed


Photo courtesy of Neon

Lichen is a fungus that grows on stationary objects, creeping along rocks, fallen trees, and dilapidated structures. It expands very slowly, less than a millimeter a year, marking the passage of time with its leisurely and steady progress. At one point during the film, the protagonist, an unnamed middle-aged researcher (Mary Woodvine), lifts her shirt and discovers that she has lichen growing over a large scar on her abdomen. How much time has actually passed on the island where she has been conducting her research? What is she looking for?

Mark Jenkin's Enys Men (2023) is an experimental film shot with 16mm that is meant to emulate the feel of a '70s folk horror. Jenkin added all of the sound effects and the minimal dialogue afterward in post and reproduced the scratchy mono soundscape of films from that era. There is no narrative to speak of; it is more of a collection of sights and sounds that the viewer has to assemble into a story. While Jenkin eschews formalism, he doesn't skimp on aesthetics, carefully dripping information out like puzzle pieces, allowing the audience to create the complete picture.

The Volunteer is a quiet woman who is content to make her daily rounds on the island, taking notes of flora and fauna in her carefully annotated notebook. She relaxes with a cup of tea every afternoon, takes a hot bath in the evening, and repeats it all the next day. She writes "no changes" in her notes for many days, but suddenly, there are changes. Apparitions haunt the corners of her peripheral vision. There is an unacknowledged grief tugging at the tails of her bright red raincoat, which is reminiscent of Don’t Look Now (1973) another film that is about sorrow. Something terrible happened on this island, but she can't quite put her finger on it. Blood was spilled and has seeped into the earth. Every day she walks up to the edge of a square-shaped hole by her house and drops a rock into it to see if she can hear it hit the bottom. Maybe there is no bottom.

Photo courtesy of Neon

Enys Men sometimes feels like a long-lost BBC nature documentary or a haunted episode of All Creatures Great and Small. The Volunteer is searching for closure for an emotion she cannot face directly. Something she loves dearly was ripped away from her, and she is stuck in purgatory until she discovers it. The film's title, Enys Men, means "stone island" in Cornish, which it is metaphorically as well, a place frozen in time, like a statue or a monument. In this case, it is a monument to death, where The Volunteer languishes in her grief.

Experimental films sometimes anger people, as they feel their time has been stolen from them. Enys Men isn't a film that is trying to waste time; it's trying to romanticize time to show how people can lose track of it if they are swallowed up in strong emotions. The Volunteer uses repetition and busy work to ignore terrible feelings, which isn't healthy for her or anyone. Thankfully, this isn't an utterly melancholy movie, and it ends with a ray of hope in the form of a flower that can bloom out of tragedy.

--Michelle Kisner