It’s Time to Dress Up Right

Make Up (Claire Oakley, 2019)

So, there may be a spoiler here — it’s there, frankly, in the categories and tags (don’t look!) but it may well be there in other reviews. Stop, if you care. Maybe no one is reading, anyway.

So, this is the debut of a female British director — the first I saw of two this week, signs, perhaps of the apocalypse. Female directors are scandalously rare. And, at the moment, so are film releases.

(I remember twenty-five years ago — I think the summer of Euro 96 — there was a sudden rush of lesbian-themed movies released, under the assumption that all the husbands would be watching the footie. I stopped counting the assumptions that assumption makes at around three.)

On the credits of Make Up, you’ll note Falmouth University, who were also behind Bait, perhaps the best film of last year, and one with a slippery generic background — which I still haven’t written up. The same comes here — a sort of kitchen sink, uneasy working class, coming of age narrative, in which Ruth (Molly Windsor) arrives at a caravan park in St Ives to spend the winter working with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), but first encounters the creepy manager Shirley (Lisa Palfrey) and the hostile coworker Kai (Theo Barklem-Biggs), Tom’s friend.

We have the awkwardnesses of the young lovers — their spaghetti on toast, their sense of maybe she shouldn’t have come — and this segues into her suspicion that Tom is having an affair. Meanwhile, she begins to get to know an older co-worker, Jade (Stefanie Martini), who also makes wigs and who Kai warns her about…

There is something haunting going on … a red-haired girl who Tom may well be having an affair with, the howling of foxes, the gathering storm, Tom the surfer’s insistence that she should avoid the sea, Shirley’s stonewalling, the surveillance of the caravan site occupiers… A moment of what should have been fun in the amusement arcade from Ruth and Tom turns into horror as the lights go out … and Kai is always hanging around.

Indeed, I began to wonder if Tom’s affair was with Kai.

And whilst the outskirts of St Ives is very definitely not Camp Crystal Lake, we may well be in slasher territory, as poetic realism of a washed-out grainy kind  turns more gothic, with lipstick on a mirror and in another caravan … and Ruth and Jade get closer.

At this point, of course, you begin to doubt what is real and what is in Ruth’s head, as the glimmers of a resistable lesbianism turns into a body horror closer to Society or Jennifer’s Body than British social realism.

The camerawork is hallucinatory — by turns ugly and beautiful. There are crises and transformations. And we are left with many questions.

Oakley is a talent to watch.

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