The intriguing narrative and genre-combo of Make Up creates an entertaining and thoughtful piece of work in Claire Oakley’s film debut. The horror imagery and thriller storytelling leads us down an unexpected path that has been cleverly designed to bring the audience to a discovery of character at the same point as Ruth discovers her own true self.
Ruth leaves her parents’ home in Derby to stay with her boyfriend of three years, Tom, who is living on the Cornish caravan holiday park where he works. The essence of the film is held in the windy gray image of the muted beach and abandoned caravans as the holiday season comes to an end, harsh weather overseeing the dull daily life of the workers and live-in locals that make Ruth feel adrift in the unknown environment.
The strangeness begins when Ruth suspects her boyfriend of cheating whilst they’ve been apart – stray red hairs found in his folded clothes and a lipstick mark on the mirror send Ruth into a spiral of paranoia. She quietly tries to figure out the identity of the mysterious red-haired woman, who seems to taunt Ruth with her evasive presence and apparently non-existent residence at the caravan park.
Flashes of long red hair and bright-red acrylic nails that seem to appear for only seconds before vanishing are a contrast against Ruth’s own bare face and bitten nails; this evasive figure seems so much more than Ruth’s own. The anxious paranoia deepens at the ever-growing bond between Ruth and Jade, another girl working at the caravan park, of whom it is discovered handmakes wigs – such as a familiar red one – and has a collection of nail polish from which she offers to give Ruth a set of red acrylics to help her stop biting her nails.
Their bond grows as Jade becomes a source of brightness that Tom seems unable to provide in the dull landscape, but not before the deep-rooted uncertainty of the meaning of Jade – as the woman her boyfriend cheated on Ruth with, or something else entirely? – brings Ruth closer to a point of breaking as she feels ever more taunted by the identity of the red-haired woman.
The build-up of horror is achieved through the imagery; Ruth messily peeling the red nails off with a knife in the middle of the night ensures the palpable mistrust she feels for the environment around her is felt even in her new home, with her sleeping boyfriend in the next room. Moments of anxiety are cleverly shown through close-up shots of Ruth’s hands, skin literally crawling in a visual signification of agitation and unease.
Shots such as these are unfortunately lacking throughout the film, despite their visual intrigue and contribution to the overall filmic atmosphere of uncertainty and paranoid character of Ruth. Imagery such as the red polish bleeding into the sink as the knife peels off the almost-melting acrylic nails, and her skin bubbling with anxiety on her shaking hands as the days of torment by the red-haired woman catch up to Ruth, are very powerful and add to that stressful element that Make Up wants to achieve, particularly in the first half of the film when the viewer is still lead down the path of assumption that this film is purely a horror/thriller. However, the unexpected, yet consciously hinted at throughout the entire narrative, road the film ends up going down makes Ruth’s revelation about her identity just that more powerful.
A few moments between Ruth and Jade, plus snippets of conversations and uneasy side-eyes from their co-workers, start to unearth an understanding of the underlying reason for the suspicions and paranoia that Ruth has towards her boyfriend. The beliefs she has were misdirected; misunderstood perceptions about her own self that, when recognised, conclude a universal message of the film: you can know yourself so little. As Ruth adorns the red wig and makeup from Jade’s home, she makes her final strides of the film down to the beach. She dances alone in the light of the bonfire, as if in the light of her own admission, and the night she then spends together with Jade ends with Ruth swimming in the Cornish sea that Tom had previously cautioned her as too dangerous to go in.
Make Up is indeed a psychological horror, mild in imagery and scares but with a tension and paranoia that unexpectedly ends as a drama about sexuality and identity; subtle and understated in exploration but almost perfect in that sense. Ruth projected her own desires onto Tom, turning them into worries as she explored her own character through him. The lipstick marks on the mirror and window that seemed to be placed only to taunt Ruth and her ignorance; the vibrant red hairs standing out like a siren against Tom’s clothing; the long red nails on the feminine hand, so contrasted against Ruth’s own, that curl around the side of a caravan wall but disappear before the owner could be seen; these disembodied and abstract parts of femininity unite at the end in the form of the new Ruth, finally understanding of herself. It’s intriguing; to have those same abstract images that so denoted the idea of a betrayal between partners and the almost-stalking ghostly figure, images used to convey the psychological thriller narrative the audience was promised, turn into something more innocuous as the coming-of-age sexual awakening and growth that Ruth reaches.
The ending leaves no room for the consequences of her actions. She cheated on her boyfriend with his co-worker, on a holiday park with an almost inescapable feeling of British seclusion, with no time given to allow Ruth to pick up the pieces of the fractured journey she’s endured and the people she’s affected. It allows the story to stay focused on the conclusion to Ruth’s narrative, and no one else’s. She arrived in the dark with her luggage blowing away in the wind, unfamiliar with the in-jokes and jargon of the locals, trying to fit-in with a new home and job and lifestyle previously unfamiliar to her; it ends with her swimming out to sea, smiling as the sun comes up, alone but this time independent and autonomous. She is no longer an outsider in a foreign land, just as she is no longer an outsider to herself.
Despite grievances from viewers that the change between horror to drama was not an idea that was neither wanted nor executed smoothly enough, I thought it was a change that matched the change in Ruth, therefore warranting the integration. Whilst the cinematography captured the secluded and lonesome undertones of the gray and rainy Cornish countryside coming to the end of its holiday life, the actual horror imagery could have been amped up to instil a greater sense of confinement and despair. Although had this been done, the ending could have been received as an even more jarring transition from the previous horror aspects. Despite this, I still believe the choices of the director and camera match the choices Ruth makes in her own life, which just signifies the director’s own journey with sexuality, helped in part by this story. The problems Ruth faces are misunderstood as it is unfamiliar territory in her mind, and I see that as something truly amplified by the creative decisions that Oakley makes.