Bait at EIFF: like falling into the Twilight Zone on the way to the beach
Mark Jenkin’s Bait plays a bit like you decided to drive to the beach but ended up falling into a pot/wormhole straight into the Twilight Zone. Shot on a vintage Bolex camera in B&W 16mm, it’s the social realist counterpart to Rob Eggers’ The Lighthouse that we didn’t know we needed.
Edward Rowe stars as Martin, a Cornish fisherman living through an economic sea-change in his small town. Wealthy Londoners have been buying up prime, sea-view real estate in the area – especially the Leighs (Mary Woodvine and Simon Shepherd), who have snatched Martin’s childhood home – now ironically named Skippers Cottage. The Leighs have renovated the house into a nautical Airbnb, which, with its ‘ropes and chains’ Martin now thinks ‘looks like a sex dungeon’.
The middle-class family only live in the area during Summer. In the local pub, which is now only open for the Summer too, swarms of wealthy tourists outstrip locals. Far away from the beach, bleak suburbs house those that actually live in the town. Visiting city elites shout angrily from windows that used to belong to fishermen in the early morning, complaining about the noise of boat engines.
Bait tracks Martin’s growing frustration with this situation – compounded by a parking dispute with the Leighs and his brother Steven’s (Giles King) use of the family’s fishing boat to take tourists on short, laddish drinking trips. Martin responds by refusing to talk to him, and fishing (mostly unsuccessfully) by laying his net on the beach. Meanwhile, the Leigh’s daughter Katie (Georgia Ellery) begins a sexual relationship with Steven’s son Neil (Isaac Woodvine), which sets off class tensions between him and Katie’s brother (Jowan Jacobs). Suffice to say it all ends in violence beautifully foreshadowed throughout by the use of flash-forward montage.
Jenkin has processed the Kodak film by hand, giving it a real tactile grit – cut-up, aged, and as rugged as the Cornish coastline itself. It’s as if the film was made by a hobbyist and abandoned in a charity shop for years before someone picked it up on a whim. He’s also added all dialogue and sound effects in post-production, which has given the whole thing an otherworldly sheen. Footsteps are outlandish and exaggerated, whilst line delivery feels at times like it comes just a split second too late. You can actually hear the mix chugging along in the background, hidden layers of static oscillating as Jenkin chops and changes between different recording sessions. But that’s the beauty of Bait – an experiment, perhaps, in showing how something very real can be turned into something from another galaxy by virtue of formatting.
Lest these Lynchian choices seem frivolous, let me assure you that Jenkins’ anachronistic choices reflect the conflict between his characters. Martin effectively lives in an outmoded 16mm world, the Leigh’s presence in which feels wrong. Without the modernity of the tourists, Bait might feel more naturalistic, but their presence breaks the film free of the constraints of space and time – that’s what casts the whole affair into a surreal wormhole. The film is now at war with itself in much the same way as the invaders conflict with the natives.
Unlike an inferior film about the same topic, Bait understands the complexity of gentrification and the inability to draw clear lines between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. It’s hardly right to say the Leigh’s shouldn’t be able to move wherever they like, and they do invest in the local economy, but it’s also impossible to ignore the destructive impact that has on the traditional lives of the locals and the soaring real-estate market that forces them out of their homes. As Martin notes, he doesn’t see a penny of this increased investment.
At the same time, it’s important to recognise the ways in which local residents amplify the damage to their community – the owner of the local pub shuts up over the winter, locals are incredibly bitter and hostile towards visitors, and Steven has given up his fishing job to ferry tourists around on short cruises. Nobody in this situation seems to be more morally wrong than the other – in fact, there’s an argument that nobody is morally wrong at all – so what can we do about it?
There’s a lot of dodgy acting in Bait, but I’m proceeding on the assumption that the ham was completely intended. Edward Rowe’s portrayal of Martin is genuinely masterful – full of pent-up, silent rage without ever needing to be expressed via words. But Mary Woodvine’s Sandra comes off as a first-time soap opera performance, as do Georgia Ellery and Jowan Jacobs as her children. It has to be said, this stilted delivery reminded me of those forgotten, scuzzy British films of the early 70’s in the same way that Possum did – there even appeared to me to be a mad dash of that era’s occultist horror, then again, maybe I’m just seeing things.
Characterisations are similarly broadly drawn – Martin and the other die-hard locals being Ken Loach levels of ‘honest, hard-working nice man unfairly picked upon by posh twats’, and the Leighs being… well… Ken Loach levels of ‘posh twats’. But, again, it seems like this is the point. Bait never claims to be realistic – its Guy Maddin theatrics make that disarmingly clear – it’s an experimental piece that turns its own fabric into an exploration of its stories themes.
The spiralling, unplaceable anger reflected both in the film’s seemingly incoherent mishmash of styles, and in Martin’s barely-caged rage, has become the dominant atmosphere in an era which, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, feels almost analogous to the Weimar republic. Before we can understand Brexit and the impulse to rail against the system – or against perceived ‘elites’ – it’s important to understand where this anger is coming from. Why did the British countryside, by and large, vote to leave the EU, and the city vote to remain? We are, as Bait reveals, at war with ourselves – and in much the same way that our cousins in the US find themselves in a political civil war too.
Rural Britain, if you want to analogise, lives largely in 16mm whilst the city projects only in 4k. How can we reconcile our problems when we’re not even speaking the same language?