Mindfuck arthouse horror Enys Men will get under your skin

The obscure, trippy yet creepy slow-burn movie from a BAFTA-winning director just premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

by Douglas Greenwood
|
23 May 2022, 11:59am

Enys Men premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2022. This review contains mild spoilers.

Very little life has survived on the coastal British island where Enys Men is set. It’s the spring of 1973. The vegetation is saturated of colour; birds seem to float aimlessly around its rocky shores, few of them nest, or even land on the earth. On the island lives one woman, reliant on deliveries from the mainland to survive. She is there to track the development of rare plant life, in particular, half a dozen white-petalled flowers. For days, she’s noted the temperature and their progression. Next to each date, a simple statement: “No change”.

This is the repeated cycle that anchors the narrative of Enys Men, the sophomore feature movie from BAFTA-winning British film director Mark Jenkin. (The title, by the way, is pronounced ennis main, not men.)

The mundanity of this woman’s life makes ample space for something to appear out of nowhere -- a change to finally be made. And when it arrives, it completely rips up not only her routine, but her mindset too. What the film asks is: Is this her imagination? Or are the ghouls and spirits of history really rising from beneath the island’s sodden soils to haunt her?

In 2019, Mark Jenkin made a splash with his debut feature Bait: a pared-back tale of family and gentrification set in modern day Cornwall. It was, however, crafted in a manner that felt like it had been made 40 years ago, with an extremely old-school crank-operated camera using 16mm monochrome film. That has become his hallmark already: making films that look and sound like no one else’s.

Or rather, films that look and sound like none of his contemporaries. His movies have a distinct period feel that doesn’t veer into the pastiche, like they’ve been discovered deep in the archives of a museum. He’s a director with masterful levels of technical know-how, and they’re so great and specific to his work that his aesthetics act alongside his movies’ lead characters with equal levels of importance.

Enys Men is so slight in story that you have to fully submit yourself to it in order to be spooked. Watching it can feel a little like placing several jigsaw puzzle pieces into place, often in slots that don’t fit. There are figures who appear, almost apparition like: a young girl; a procession of women in traditional 19th century dress; miners seen only through the glow of candlelight. But what is the purpose of their presence? That is, until the film’s final moments, never quite clear.

Still, if you’re invested in the idea of a film about a woman trying to navigate her own fraught mental state upon an isolated island, disoriented and slowly running out of vital supplies to survive, then maybe Enys Men, a sublime, supernatural arthouse mindfuck, is the thing for you. A jump-scare James Wan production it is not – instead, it’ll grab the first opportunity to burrow beneath your skin, like a tick to a host with blood worth sucking.

Enys Men will be released by Neon in the US later in 2022. This review was published during the Cannes Film Festival. Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on movies.

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Cannes Film Festival