Mark Jenkin is an unusual director in this digital age. To begin with he has a cutting room and that room has a floor. However he doesn’t leave anything on the cutting room floor. That is one of the things we learned during the Q&A of his latest film Bait when it had its world premiere at the Berlinale Forum. The film is shot on 16 mm, incidentally not the first film I saw in that format during the festival. Denis Cotés competition entry Répertoire des villes disparues (Ghost town anthology) was also shot on 16 mm and was one of my favourite films in the competition. Bait however, turned out to be the standout of all the films I saw during the week.
The film is set in a fishing village in Cornwall. Martin is a fisherman whose life has been overturned by the tourism trade. He has been forced to sell the cottage where he was raised to a London couple. His brother on the other hand has embraced the new reality and has started to use the former family fishing boat to take semi drunk tourists on cruises. Martin who is intent on making his livelihood on fishing, catches whatever he can and is set to save money to get his own boat. There is an obvious theme of old vs new, city vs countryside, and the film is highly topical in these Airbnb times. If one is so inclined one might add analogue vs digital to the mix. It’s worth noting though that the film doesn’t get overly didactic. Even though we might sympathize with Martin, does it mean that we have to resent his brother for adopting to the new circumstances? And while the Londoners may not come off as the most sensible people, Jenkin is still far from the simplistic moralizing that the tale might have slipped in to.
We’re working in an art form that is 120 years old, and we already seem to have given up on the discussion of what the form should be.
If the characters are not black and white, the cinematography certainly is, with strong contrasts. Bait is not only shot on 16 mm, but also hand-processed which obviously lends a vintage feel to the project. Still it feels more archaic than nostalgic. Critics have mentioned Russian cinema and Kuleshovian montage. I guess it’s a veritable Rorschach test which director that comes to mind while watching the film. I clearly understand the references made to Eisenstein and also to Vertov’s The man with the movie camera (in particular the contrast between work and leisure.) To me though, the most obvious reference was Jean Epstein. Partly because his films occasionally used the sea as a location (La Tempestaire for instance) but most of all because of the cinematic means employed. Not merely his use of close-ups but also the editing and even the use of flash forwards. In Bait a flash forward including handcuffs is particularly memorable. I also thought of Marcel L’Herbier and his use of montage in L’argent. Whether that says more about me then about the film is an open question. In any case the film is much more than the sum of its cinematic lineage.
It is refreshing with a director who is clearly interested in the formal aspects of cinema, and who is not afraid to make bold choices. At the Berlinale Q&A Jenkin lamented the lack of experimentation in contemporary cinema. Something that was all too visible at this year’s rather lackluster edition of the festival. It was a long time ago that I saw a film where every frame felt so purely cinematic. The grainy visual texture of the film with the jarring editing and extensive use of close-ups, felt like a breath of fresh air in a rather disappointing selection. At the risk of overlooking what Jenkin wants to say about class, power and gentrification, to me Bait is first and foremost a love letter to cinema, and it’s clearly handwritten.