“Make Up”: Film Review

A young woman becomes her own Rebecca in “Make Up”, Claire Oakley’s directorial debut, with flashforwards that push her into adulthood.

A windswept seaside caravan park on the Cornish coast settles down for winter. The site is almost empty, with just a few local workers left to clean, fumigate, and wrap up the properties in plastic sheeting.  A young woman in a hoodie, almost still a girl, elf-like, tomboyish, joins them. Ruth (Molly Windsor) has just turned eighteen, and armed with her new emancipation, has travelled down from Derby to be with her older boyfriend (Joseph Quinn).

Ruth, quiet and unassuming, seems to have managed so far to keep life and its complexities at one remove. Her new, unfamiliar environment, undoes that. Just as the dark sea, nearby, ceaselessly crashes onto and reshapes the shoreline, everything around her, the most insignificant event or encounter, seems to shove her into new territory. She becomes increasingly alert, watchful, both curious and cautious, reminiscent of Catherine Deneuve in Polanski’s “Repulsion” keeping the world, and maturity, at bay.

Where the walls, in Deneuve’s South Kensington apartment, become elastic, in Ruth’s world of caravans, those walls are wholly pliable and transparent. The plastic sheeting used to protect the holiday lets become filters, distorting lenses, gateways. Ruth finds a strand of very red hair she believes belongs to a love rival, and embarks on a sleepwalker’s journey, chasing a woman who might not exist. “Make Up” shifts into a different gear, echoing Nick Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”. There is a hint of horror, accentuated by the hostile sea, wind whistling around the sand dunes, the uncanny fox cries at night, and the caravan site’s alienating end-of-season mood.

A brilliant cameo by Lisa Palfrey as Shirley, the wheezy, cackling site manager, highlights Ruth’s flirtation with madness – Shirley could not be more normal and decent, but from Ruth’s perspective, one would almost expect her to turn into a Mrs Danvers. Ruth finds herself increasingly estranged from the little that is familiar to her.

The self is a foreign land to Ruth, unfamiliar and dangerous, and she is not quite ready to overcome her curiosity, fear, and discomfort. She finally decides to dip her toes into a new existence when, in an overtly symbolic scene in a film full of overt symbols, she launches herself into danger and into the cold steel grey sea, despite not knowing how to swim.

While hunting for the women she thinks is her love rival, she finds a friend, Jade (Stefanie Martini) who welcomes her into a very different life, with undertones of motherliness. It’s a rite of passage that shows her trying on a different kind of feminity in scenes that evoke something in between Brian de Palma and Powell & Pressburger.

Here though, unlike Carrie or Black Narcissus, adulthood and sexuality founded in self-awareness turn out to be welcomed, and heavy lipstick does not lead Ruth down the road to ruin and horror. Instead, Oakley gives us a glorious nod to the lurid splendour of the late 1970s, and the soundtrack features Fern Kinney singing Love Me Tonight.

The strength of Claire Oakley’s film is that it evokes myths, horror and fairy tale in the viewer’s mind while retaining a stylistically sparse visual sense rooted in the everyday – albeit through Nick Cooke’s beautiful photography and striking sound design by Ania Przygoda. The terror her heroine feels about adulthood and assuming her desires does not over-determine the genre of the film – it is only a passing theme – and this leaves the character free to experience a cognitive shift, move on and appropriate a life built on her own emerging inclinations.

Oakley has discussed in interviews the genesis of “Make Up”, how the story of the film manifested early on as nightmares, at a time when she was still married, and how, during a film writing workshop, one of her fellow writers bluntly voiced his assumption about her. Which turns out to be the point of “Make Up” too – a passage to adulthood through owning one’s desires.

“Make Up” is deceptively simple, yet evokes so much through a carefully devised structure, abundant cinematic parallels, and excellent performances, especially from Lisa Palfrey and Molly Windsor. One imagines that with more generous funding – the film is perhaps too visibly low-budget, and no pandemic to get in the way, “Make Up”, with its powerful imagery and use of flashforwards, could have made a much bigger impression.

Director and Writer Claire Oakley
Cinematographer Nick Cooke
Sound designer Ania Przygoda
Composer Ben Salisbury
With Molly Windsor, Stefanie Martini, Lisa Palfrey, Joseph Quinn and Theo Barklem-Biggs.

Intrigued by Claire Oakley’s “Make Up”? You might enjoy Michael Pearce’s “Beast”.