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Enys Men Explained- The Savage Passage of Time And The Relentlessness Of Lichen

Enys Men by Mark Jenkin does two things better than anything else. It perfectly encapsulates folk horror in a web of ambiguous Weird. It’s a movie best described as a vibe. The linear but not story structure is heavy on implication and mood, letting enigmatic looks and confusing moments of tranquility and consternation sit alongside each other. The Cornish island where it takes place is a strange, desolate place where people come and go that shouldn’t be there, and one solitary woman watches over it all. Why is she there? What is her purpose, and why do her ghosts or memories haunt her so? Are they real or imagined?

Films like this rely on imagination, soulful performances, and settings. Enys Men is thick with all three. Monotony breeds boredom and then something entirely new and stunningly hellish. Things happen with such deadpan stoicism it is hard to tell what is real. The woman named only the Volunteer writes day after day in her journal, “No change,” and yet this rocky island home does nothing but change. Is it all in her head? Is it in ours?

That is the experiential experience of watching Enys Men. Every scene feels poised on the edge of disaster. This could be ground zero for the end of the world, and you wouldn’t be surprised. It’s like you tapped directly into someone’s nightmare right as it took shape. Whispy, amorphous, and hard to grasp, it is haunting in that way that a dream you can’t remember the following day but are left feeling unsettled. Here’s everything you need to know about the gorgeous and defiantly undefinable Enys Men.

Who is the Volunteer, and why does the book she is reading matter

A lone woman appears to be studying a striking white flower perched precariously on a cliffside. Every day she checks the chemistry of the soil, visually inspects the flower, drops a rock down a shaft, and observes strange stone structures on the island. Alone she goes about her tasks. Occasionally she speaks to someone that sounds suspiciously like herself about running out of tea and whether she is happy. Once she returns home, she follows a rigid routine for the rest of the evening. She records her findings, “No Change,” until one day ominously there is, starts up her generator and reads Edward Goldsmith’s ecological canary A Blueprint For Survival.

This book is a clue to the true nature of the island. The Volunteer is a stand-in for all humans, and the flowers represent Gaia. She studies and observes, watching as cataclysmic changes take hold, only to discover later that she caused the destruction of the flowers without realizing it. Goldsmith’s book was groundbreaking when published in 1972 and eerily resonant today with its predictions and call to action about the environmental impacts of progress. Jenkin’s film seems to say we are all doomed to a similar fate as the woman.

Enys Men

The woman, the flower, and the lichen in Enys Men

As time passes, the woman eventually finds some lichen on the flowers. She is alarmed but not overly so. Even stranger, when she inspects her body later, she has lichen growing from a large scar on her stomach. These things would have worried most folk, but not her. She stares into the distance with her piercing blue eyes.

A younger woman who she constantly sees is her from the past. We know this because, in the final act, we see her fall through the glass roof and get the large scar the Volunteer has on her stomach that is now growing lichen. The man who briefly came to her house and later, she finds dead, was probably her husband, who returns to her briefly before she has to let him go again and again. These are remnants of the past she is forced to encounter every time the cycle repeats.

Lichen represents the passage of time and the inevitability of change. She seems concerned by its appearance but almost resigned like she has seen it all before, even if she doesn’t want to. Like Goldsmith’s novel, nature is affected irrevocably in some cases. On this island, where time doesn’t stand still but shifts and tilts with unnerving ease, death is the constant, and lichen symbolizes the symbiotic nature of life and death.

Lichen is a complex lifeform that is part algae and part fungi. The fungi qualities of the organism allow the algae to thrive where it normally would not be able to. It is incredibly resilient and diverse in look and function. Unlike the trapped inhabitants of the island, it has no roots and can grow in a variety of places. Lichen symbolizes endurance, just as the people on the island are forced to suffer in silence.

The woman obsessively checks her flowers to assuage her fears. It is a way to make sense of what has happened to her. She is as much a ghost in Cornwall as the miners and the dead sailors. Colors matter in Enys Men. The flowers and the young girls stand in pure white contrast to the woman’s red coat and the man’s yellow raincoat. As a young girl, she is vibrant and alive with whites and blues and later with red, the color most associated with injury or death. The miners and the sailers are muted shades of gray, black, and moss green. They are our impact on their earth- dirty and covered with the elements they seek to ravage.

What is the island?

This island seems to collect suffering like a sad, lonely collage of tragedy. Miners stare vacantly and resolutely from inside the mine shaft deep at night. A young girl appears out of thin air and then is gone just as quickly, but not before flinging accusations with her eyes and her mouth. An old man watches over her stone house in the dark, judging and waiting for what we don’t know. Young girls dressed in white gowns chant and dance under the sun, or is it moonlight, you later ask? Strangest of all duplicates of herself staring back at her.

A supply ship named the Covenak wrecked there on May 1st, 1897, with another boat called the Senara also perishing coming to its rescue. A yellow raincoat seems to have belonged to another man long gone from this place. These are ghosts or memories, or memories of ghosts. Near her house is a stone monument to a beloved man lost on May 1st. It seems something is always lost on May 1st, and those who live on this island are stuck in a perpetual loop. Echos of the past return to this island, forcing the woman to bear witness. Long dead victims present themselves to the Volunteer. All of it is detailed on a radio that shouldn’t report events from the past, especially when that past was seventy-five years ago or two weeks in the future.

Time doesn’t work the same here. Water drips upwards, and the woman sees and hears versions of herself from the past, present, and future. Her house decays and then reforms into the fully intact form we first see it in. The lines blur on the island as reality twists and crashes like the sea itself. Her false reality of being a simple researcher is shattered when the glass that holds the flower breaks. She knows it too. She tells the man who brings her supplies that she is not alone because there are so many specters of pain there she will never be alone.

Nearly an hour into the film, once lichen is growing unchecked on the flower and her stomach, a picture takes shape that is deeply unsettling. She is doomed along with everyone else on this island. Nothing she does will change her fate. She must simply endure and accept.

Why does she throw rocks into the shaft?

She seems to understand that she is reliving the past over and over. This is why she isn’t alarmed by the lichen that grows on her. She is resolute because she knows this has all happened again and will happen countless more times. Likely, she throws rocks into the shaft to orient herself in space and time. If the miners are there, she knows she has shifted into another time.

When she throws many rocks into the shaft and almost throws a larger one at a miner looking up at her, she is likely making a futile attempt to change things. She stops herself, however, because she knows she can never change what has already happened and what will happen again. Just like the flower she cuts but has no recollection of until the end is destined to die, everything will happen just as it always had. The one thing you can never outrun is time. It plods along until death comes for you, and it comes for us all.

It’s by no mistake that all of the deaths took place on May 1st. May 1st or May Day is also a universally understood call for help. So many lives were lost at sea and on the land of Cornwall. Is the island a magnet for misery? Is it a place where time doesn’t exist traditionally, or is the rock vibrating with an energy that ensnares all who get close? We won’t ever know, and it probably doesn’t matter. Enys Men is about grief, the inevitability of death, and the inescapable passage of time. It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+.