Claire Oakley’s debut feature is a stylish calling card of promise, but lacks lasting substance.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: this review was made possible thanks to a screener link provided by the film’s distributor, Curzon Artificial Eye.
Despite how it often looks, Make Up is not really a horror movie. I don’t mean that in the way that certain people describe films like The VVitch or Annihilation as not really being horror movies because they prioritise theme and atmosphere over the expected spook-jump-fests. I mean that although writer-director Claire Oakley’s debut feature drapes itself in gorgeous horror aesthetics and aims to fixate on its protagonist’s psychological torment, it is not a horror movie, not really. It’s instead a story of self-acceptance and wrestling with those truths in a manner that, yeah, can be pretty damn scary and difficult to properly articulate, as it is for 18-year-old Ruth (Molly Windsor). Arriving at a Cornish holiday park as the Summer tourist season fades to be with her boyfriend of three years, Tom (Joseph Quinn), and keep the place ticking over during the Winter when the tourists have buggered off leaving only the few permanent elderly residents and staff members.
It’s a haunting, dismal, eerie place even without having Ben Salisbury’s by now expected drone of dread slathered all over it. Rows of colourless identikit static caravans abandoned and featureless, most them in the process of fumigation whose plastic covering creates a closed-off almost crime-scene effect. Their insides often claustrophobically small, which Nick Cooke’s cinematography is always drawing attention to – we’re never long from the latest boxy looking shot, really emphasising the enclosed nature of this resort, whether that be in one of the caravans, the washing facilities of park, or even wandering rudderless between those identikit rows. Colours are bold and often harsh, buzzing interior lights and glaring television screens betraying a location that’s stuck in some purgatorial past, almost oppressive even. Simultaneously devoid of immediate life yet prying eyes linger in some far-off corner managing to see all, power and water frequently shutting off randomly like they’re subconsciously sending a message to interlopers. And that desolate ever-present howl of the coastline wind, rattling the foundations of these largely abandoned camps, mixing with the loud upsetting howls of nearby fox cubs scared because their mother has ventured out from the nest.
Far more unsettling than there being some secret evil lingering underneath it all (there’s not) is how objectively ordinary this place is. I’ve been to places like this, holidayed at resorts like this, though not Cornwall and never outside of the tourist season. I wouldn’t want to reside there for longer than a week, that listed series of factors would slowly eat away at my sanity – midway through Make Up, Tom apologises to a despondent Ruth that their time together “doesn’t feel like a holiday all the time.” The cumulative effect forces one into their mind to stew over things it may not be healthy to stew over and with nothing but time to do it in. For Ruth, that’s not, as Tom thinks, because her experience isn’t like a holiday all the time. Instead, it’s a result of finding several red hairs all over his wardrobe the day after her arrival and a peculiar lipstick mark on his mirror that won’t come off. This is her first time working at the park with him (her parents wouldn’t let her go in prior years), he’s disappearing at all hours, and there’s a very insular unwelcoming culture amongst the other staff. All of which conspires with the location to eat away at her as time rolls on. Is Tom cheating on her? Is it with this mysterious red-haired girl no-one else on staff seems to know of? And why can’t Ruth stop thinking about her?
Despite it not really being a horror movie – it’s more a psychological drama heavily playing with horror aesthetics as a natural extension of the setting and scenario – Make Up reminded me a lot of Ari Aster’s bleakly beautiful Midsommar. Both effectively being break-up movies working in metaphors and symbolism for self-discovery and self-acceptance in their young female protagonists, set in isolated holiday communities with severely dysfunctional central relationships neither party can fully articulate the issues with (assuming they even want to). Where things differ for the worse in this comparison, however, is that Aster’s film went spelunking in its various metaphors and themes, examining them thoroughly and the crossing intersections between each, whilst still allowing his cast of characters to function as characters independent of their roles in the overarching metaphorical picture.
Oakley’s film, by contrast, is only deep in its shallowness. Once you cotton onto the very obvious fact that Ruth isn’t just focussed on the possibility of cheating, often being lured around the park by flashes of red hair and that same lipstick smudge, then you’ll have figured out what metaphor is and it’s a case of waiting out the clock for Ruth to accept it. Oakley really hammers home the same few symbolic visuals without properly developing or introducing new variations on them all film. At one point she resorts to intentionally withholding the payoff of a certain scene until later on in a manner that’s likely supposed to represent suppression of one’s true self but in execution just comes off as needlessly obfuscating important information. And, yes, I am trying to be coy as to what the central metaphor is largely because it’s all there is to the film substance-wise but still gets treated as a big reveal, so getting ahead of the game turns proceedings into hoping in vain that there’s more going on than just that surface. Instead, right when things threaten to get truly interesting, when the actual narrative and its central metaphor seem prepared to finally shift out of first gear, the film cuts out, not too dissimilar to Julia Ducournau’s Raw.
Were any of the characters written to feel like actual characters rather than obvious metaphors and extensions of Ruth’s personality, I feel like the obviousness of the film’s metaphor wouldn’t be such a frustrating knock. The times when Oakley has characters actually converse and interact, rather than stand around staring at things or continue to really draw out yet another scene of Ruth apprehensively walking towards something – Windsor, for the record, is a solid performer but can’t find enough variations on the notes she’s asked to hit to keep these scenes from eventually falling into repetition – are disarmingly sweet and naturalistic, at odds with the meticulously drawn-out slow burn of the film at large. Instead, characters are utilised for their symbolism in a particular sequence then discarded with little interest. And since Oakley also places such a premium on style and psychodrama aesthetics rather than complex psychological depth, I found the attempted cathartic freeing sensation of the climax to be rather undermined. Visually spellbinding like most everything else in the film, but emotionally attempting to light a full fireworks parade with a match only long enough for a few sparklers.
I worry I’m coming off too negative. Make Up is fine, there’s nothing disastrously wrong with it. For all my harping about its crippling lack of substance and prioritisation of aesthetics that it maybe leans too detrimentally hard on, those aesthetics are gorgeous and finely considered. I also see very strong potential in Oakley’s thematic storytelling capabilities too should she flesh them out to deeper than surface-level and pair them with actual believable characters. But that lack of development and lasting substance, whether it be due to practical/budgetary realities or just not enough time in the conceptual oven, turns to active frustration by the time the film cuts to black and marks it as yet another entry in the Middling Brit Indie Filmmaker Debut sweepstakes. It’s like when a super-promising up-and-coming chef serves you a uniquely-presented McChicken Sandwich. Sure, it’s a flashy-as-hell McChicken Sandwich and it goes down well enough, but the sensation of its taste doesn’t last and you just kinda wish you’d instead met them a few years down the line when they’ve hopefully refined their talents into making something more enriching.
Make Up will be playing in Curzon cinemas across the UK and on the Curzon Home Cinema platform from Friday.
Callum Petch can’t keep crying all of the time.