But everything is changing. There are times when it’s not clear whether or not she is alone on this lonely island. Figures appear. A white-haired man is standing outside at night. A woman stands on her roof. Or shows up in the next room. There are moments when she is suddenly surrounded by seven girls, all wearing white hoods and white aprons. Underground, in the dripping rocky darkness, miners cluster, staring up at her, candles attached to their helmets. Ghosts of the past residents of the island? A yellow raincoat seems to suggest a man was here, maybe there was a boat crash. Maybe the pointed rock in the middle of the field is a magnetic force, vibrating with energies past and present. The sound design amplifies the minute (her boots scraping against pebbles), and silence suddenly booms. The radio crackles to life with indecipherable messages.
“Enys Men” doesn’t explain itself. This can be frustrating for some. I found it compelling, not just stylistically but emotionally. It called to mind, on some level, Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” in its devotion to repetition, in its patience in noticing small changes, in breaking down the routine into something strange, even threatening . There’s tension in the monotony. When change comes, it drops from the sky like a threatening anvil.
Lichen is a central symbol of “Enys Men,” deep and rich in its potential multiple meaning. Lichen proliferates across the island, an unstoppable force, breaking apart rocks, and clambering over vertical stony walls. Jenkin goes back to it again and again, shots of it pushing through boulders, sticking out of the sides of the cliff. Lichen is mysterious. It looks like a plant, but it’s not a plant. It’s not fungi, either. It doesn’t adhere to strict categories. In “Gaia,” a 2021 eco-horror film, a giant fungus takes over a jungle, and also the humans unfortunate enough to be trapped in the perimeter, with a woman basically sprouting mushrooms out of her skin. There’s a similar sense of an irresistible force in “Enys Men,” perhaps supernatural, perhaps natural.
What all of this means is never stated outright. Things don’t “add up.” That’s fine with me. I was riveted by every moment of this haunting weird film. “Enys Men” made me legitimately uneasy.
Not every movie sends you down a Google rabbit hole on a quest to learn more about lichen. Apparently, I have taken lichen for granted all this time. I know what it is, but I don’t know what it IS. In Googling around for information, I tripped over a beautiful poem by Jane Hirshfeld called “For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen.” Hirschfeld refers to lichen as the “marriage of fungi and algae” and calls it “chemists of air.”