Boston Underground Film Festival 2023: Enys Men and the Insanity of Repetition

Image courtesy of The Boston Underground Film Festival

A few months ago, Horror Obsessive’s JP Nunez wrote up the trailer for the forthcoming film Enys Men that had me and many others captivated by its folk horror approach. I was stunned, honestly. And learning that the film was playing at The Boston Underground Film Festival, I knew it would be high on my weekend must-watch list. I was very excited taking my seat in the theater, thinking about the strange, disconnected images in the trailer and hoping Enys Men would be the first film of the festival to seep into my cerebrum and occupy unwelcomed space as I tried to make sense of it all over the next week. In a sense, that did happen, though perhaps not how director Mark Jenkin intended. 

The poster for Enys MEn shows The Volunteer standing in her red jacket at the top of a lush, dandelion filled, grassy hill.

I’ll start with the synopsis: Enys Men is about an unnamed woman (Mary Woodvine) who volunteers to be posted on an uninhabited island to study the daily changes of a rare flower. Every day for this Volunteer (the character name on IMDB) is exactly the same as the day before, save for the soil temperature might vary by a fraction of a degree. The job isn’t glamorous or exciting. Simply observe and report. Her only contact with the outside world are the voices on the other end of a two-way radio and occasional supply deliveries from a Boatman (Edward Rowe). Every day is succinctly routine until the appearance of lichen on one of the flowers turns The Volunteer’s world into a psychological battle for her sanity.  

Thematically, Enys Men has its charms. The Volunteer’s yearning for connection is apparent throughout the film, despite her insistence that she isn’t lonely. There’s also an idealistic take on the endless cycle of repetition, musing on the Albert Einstein quote, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results,” In the Volunteer’s case, the opposite is true. She wants things to stay predictable, and change is terrifying. As the flowers start to develop lichens, a maternal instinct to save them emerges, and there’s a notion of getting older and how our bodies transform as death approaches.

Enys Men’s 16mm look gives the film the look of the period it’s set in, the backdrop of the island provides sprawling vistas of natural beauty, and the colorization pops in a way few films do despite that 4k camera technology and visual effects that are available. Honestly, Enys Men is gorgeous to look at. Add to that notion a spectacular performance by Mary Woodvine, who presents the weathered wariness of her character through decisive looks, which is necessary given there’s not a whole lot of dialogue in the film. While the Volunteer isn’t entirely alone, her relationship with The Girl (Flo Crowe) isn’t one that employs motherly fulfillment or regular conversation. Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem.  

The Boatman screams


Jenkin’s approach to the Volunteer’s monotonous daily life is one of pure isolation fueled by non-stop repetition. So, for most of Enys Men’s, Jenkin needs to establish The Volunteer’s silent routine. In no way is this a silent film, but the sound of Enys Men is mostly crashing waves, rustling wind, and occasional seagull calls. Anyone with a sound machine next to their bed will likely understand where I’m going with this. The sound is hypnotic, the visuals are beautiful, and because the film is a scrawling slow burn, it creates a perfect languorous atmosphere.  

There’s flagrant reference to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now in the protagonist’s eye-catching wardrobe, while the island and its more unexplainable conjurings elicit a Wicker Man quality. With genuine admiration for the stylings of Robert Eggers, Jenkin crafts a setup that feels Lighthouse adjacent and a build pulled from The Witch’s handbook. However, to Eggers’ credit, some action still moves the film forward. Enys Men’s narrative, on the other hand, is strained by its stylistic direction. All it takes is one variable to upset The Volunteer’s meticulous program, and, though it’s almost like you’re watching a Russian Doll inspired folktale, it’s a much slower process without the comedic timing of Natasha Lyonne. Jenkin, who also wrote the script, tries to avoid losing his audience by getting them to focus on the visuals, but that will only allow them to go so far. After an hour of insubstantial repetitious progress, the experience becomes strenuous.  

After exiting the theater Friday night, I struggled to form articulated thoughts on Enys Men. I liked the idea but was left unentertained by the execution, which became a source of certain frustration. I was ready to write the film off, angered by the misdirection I felt I had been given by the trailer that certainly makes Enys Men look like it intends a more action-packed pace. However, it does have an impact, even if it’s a negative one. After sitting with the movie and the infuriation it created, I found it was consuming my thoughts. Respectfully, the film wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s an arduous story leading to a half-expected finale, with near intrinsic twists and a particular bombastic extravagance that leaves me conflicted because of how rapturous other elements of Enys Men turned out, and I’m starting to understand where it would appeal to others. The film’s finale is somewhat haunting, leaving viewers to infer The Volunteer’s fate, but arriving at the end of its ninety-six-minute run-time is the hard part.  

Enys Men played on March 24 as a part of The Boston Underground Film Festival. The festival runs from March 22 to March 26. Individual screening tickets can be purchased through the Brattle Theatre box office or the Boston Underground Film Fest website Enys Men releases to limited theaters on March 31. 

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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