British director Claire Oakley’s feature debut is at once a brilliantly tense mystery-thriller and an impressionistic psychological portrait. Make Up taps into a rich Gothic tradition where repressed emotions find their vent in uncanny space and sexual awakening is realised through the imagination.
The uncanny is vital to Oakley’s film, the latest in a happy resurgence of British seaside Gothic cinema following Michael Pearce’s Beast and Rose Glass’s Scarborough-set Saint Maud. Fans of Matthew Holness’ Possum and TV’s huffy romantic drama The End of The F***ing World will similarly find much to love here. Make Up isn’t strictly a horror film but it’s an unsettling experience, brilliantly mining the familiar weirdness of an off-season British holiday resort and its spectral inhabitants.
After her boyfriend, Tom (Joseph Quinn), lands a job at a Cornish caravan park while it is closed for fumigation, 18-year-old Ruth (Molly Windsor) ups-sticks from Derby to live with him. Soon after her arrival, Ruth notices lipstick residue on Tom’s bedroom mirror. A banal sign of infidelity turns increasingly sinister as she notices the mark repeated in bizarre places around the park and a mysterious figure spies on her from one of the supposedly vacant caravans.
Park boss Shirley (an unnerving Lisa Palfrey) dismisses Ruth’s anxiety, but she knows something is out of joint if only she could put her finger on it. Oakley and her cinematographer Nick Cooke evoke both Ruth’s interiority and the caravan park’s uncanniness through a sickly, washed-out colour palette. Static medium-shot compositions box Ruth into the confined spaces of Tom’s poky caravan and the launderette where she bags a gig working with the vivacious Jade (Stefanie Martini). On the surface, Jade is everything that Ruth isn’t: she is confident, liberated, and conventionally feminine to Ruth’s inwardly plain sullenness. By turns, Jade brings out something of herself in Ruth, much the chagrin of Tom and his gross workmate, Kai (Theo Barklem-Biggs).
Fantasy and reality become increasingly indistinguishable as Ruth’s friendship with Jade develops; the film’s colours find vibrancy and the camera becomes more active, almost as if it is waking up with Ruth. So too, does the figure in the caravan window, who is at once entirely banal and like a supernatural entity. As Ruth’s imagination is nourished, narrative linearity cracks and the editing becomes increasingly impressionistic, giving over to pure sensation.
A key moment in the park’s shower cubicles is revisited through flashbacks to the point where fantasy and reality become so inseparable that the distinction ceases to matter. In the end, the only thing is the internal life of the imagination, given figure through Ruth’s sexuality and realised beautifully in Make Up’s sea-bound climax.
Make Up is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema from 31 July.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm