In the Gothic tradition, crashing waves tend to signal burgeoning female eroticism, so it’s hardly surprising that from the moment that shy nineteen year old Ruth (BAFTA TV Award winner Molly Windsor) arrives at a holiday park on the windswept Cornish coast in the middle of the night, everything she thought she desired is thrown into question.
She’s made the thirteen hour journey to move in with her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn), who lives in one of the empty caravans and does odd jobs around the park. Summer is almost over, the tourists are leaving, and the air is heavy with a thick layer of grey mist. Initially thrilled to be reunited, even if it is in Tom’s authentically horrible caravan (dirty laundry, toilet roll on the bedside table), Ruth’s excitement is short-lived as she discovers a mysterious lipstick stain on his mirror and strands of red hair on his clothes.
The holiday park itself is a brilliant setting for a psychosexual drama. The rows upon rows of identical caravans on perfectly mown grass is inherently unsettling; a miniature conformist community shielded from the wildness of the sea by sand dunes. A confused elderly resident has a habit of wandering down to the beach at night, only to be returned to her cage-like caravan. Feeling isolated and betrayed, Ruth is haunted by glimpses of a girl with long red hair and claw-like acrylic nails, and simultaneously falls under the spell of outgoing park worker and make up enthusiast Jade (Stefanie Martini).
Make Up is writer and director Claire Oakley’s debut feature, inspired by a dream of pursuing a mysterious woman which eventually led to Oakley’s own queer awakening. The project is clearly deeply personal, and Oakley confidently crafts a heady, spooky and genuinely sexy atmosphere. Cinematographer Nick Cooke finds strange beauty in the mundane, institutional interiors, and although the symbolism leans toward the obvious it’s undeniably effective: anything red equals eroticism, while Ruth has to learn to swim in the sea so she can understand the depths of her own desires.
But neither strong visuals nor Molly Windsor’s wonderfully understated central performance can compensate for how ill-defined Oakley’s characters are. We learn next-to-nothing about Ruth besides her sapphic curiosity, which is sadly not quite enough to make her a truly compelling lead, and both Tom and Jade are merely devices, one-dimensional projections of competing desires.
Oakley also leans rather heavily into the strange, unfriendly locals stereotype, which might have been a deliberate nod to the folk horror tradition of an off-kilter secluded community which will either save or doom the innocent outsider. Yet particularly in the wake of Mark Jenkins’ 2019 breakout hit Bait, in which a Cornish fisherman tries to resist the onslaught of second-homers and gentrifiers, such characterisation feels rather lazy.
At only 80 minutes, Make Up is undernourished and resembles an extended short film more than a fully realised feature. And yet, for its faults, it does identify Oakley as an exciting new talent and another much-needed queer directorial voice. Make Up disappointingly only dips a toe into its own thematic depths, but anyone who’s ever begun to question their sexuality might recognise themselves in its quietly yearning heroine.
Make Up is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from July 31.
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