Sunday, 17 February 2019

Bait - a necessary evil?

Bait review – hypnotic take on tourists ruining Cornwall

Mark Jenkin’s film about two fishermen coping with the influx of sightseers is intriguing for its distinct visual style

Cornish film-maker Mark Jenkin has contributed one of the most arrestingly strange movies in Berlin this year. It’s an adventure in zero-budget analogue cinema, a black-and-white film shot with a Bolex cine-camera on 16mm film, and developed in such a way as to create ghostly glitches and scratches on the print. Now, that’s a nostalgist affectation that is sometimes unconvincing: I’m often agnostic when Guy Maddin does it. But the primitivism of Jenkin’s film is the real thing – and hypnotically strange.

A drama on what might be the rather hackneyed theme of tourists ruining Cornwall becomes a bizarre expressionist melodrama. It has the huge closeups and crashingly emphatic narrative grammar of early cinema and, like home movies, it has non-diegetic sound, with dialogue overdubs and ambient noise which could well be taken from a sound effects LP. But it’s very effective, and the monochrome cinematography desentimentalises the Cornish landscape, turning it into an anti-picture postcard. The weirdness of Bait can’t be overestimated, like FW Murnau directing an episode of EastEnders.

Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) is a fisherman, a gloweringly aggressive man who resents the incomers who have taken over his village. Fishing is in decline. Where once this industry used bait to catch fish, now the whole community and the beautiful landscape are used as bait to catch tourists. Only it feels as if the tourists are the ones who have the locals in their net.

Martin and his brother Steven (Giles King) have been forced to sell their late father’s picturesque harbour-front cottage to Londoners who stay there in the summer and Airbnb the loft to other tourists. With colossal insensitivity, they have gutted the place and redecorated it in a twee “fisherfolk” style with nets and maritime memorabilia on the walls.

As Martin growls to his brother: “Ropes and chains like a sex dungeon.” Steven now uses the family’s fishing boat to give tourists sightseeing trips, including crowds of idiotic blokes on stag weekends. Martin himself is saving up for a new boat, but insists on trying to be a fisherman without one, wading out into the surf with a net for sea bass, trying to catch lobster with a single pot, and selling the meagre catch to local pubs and cafes.

In his martyred way, he almost savours the humiliation of doing this, and nurses the resentment involved. His irritation with the Londoners explodes when his ramshackle van gets clamped by the security firm for parking in the now-reserved spaces outside his former family home and a hundred other little slights add to his simmering rage.

Meanwhile, Steven’s son is more interested in learning the ways of fishing than tourist-pleasing – but his sexual attraction to the young women that arrive with the holidaymakers creates a separate crosscurrent of tension.

Jenkin adds to the disorientation by introducing little premonition flashes of events still to come. A young local woman throws a white ball at the tourists’ cottage and, before the police show up, we see a glimpse of the handcuffs still to come. We also see this same white ball superimposed on the ghostly moon.

Without the roughness and even crudity of Jenkins’ homemade effects, this “montage” gesture would not have been plausible. But within the stylised visual language he’s using, it works very well.

There are other conspicuous juxtapositions: two different scenes will be interleaved, with different characters, in closeup, yelling at each other. What an intriguing and unexpectedly watchable film. Bait is an experiment – and a successful one.

Mark Jenkin’s film Bait is shot in black and white. Photograph: Early Day Films