It’s not about what it looks like. It’s about how it makes you feel.
Ruth (Molly Windsor) had to escape. She’s been dating Tom (Joseph Quinn) for three years only to spend the first two winters together alone while he worked at a seaside holiday spot in Cornwall during its tourist-free months. She made certain this time would be different, though. Maybe her parents finally gave her permission or maybe being eighteen finally gave her the determination to go regardless—it honestly doesn’t matter. All that does is Ruth’s arrival. She’s in her lover’s arms, gearing up to ask Shirley (Lisa Palfrey) for work, and ready to do whatever is necessary to forget about everything else besides the here and now. It may not be a vacation per se, but it’s still a break from her monotonous reality back home.
What she’s unprepared for, however, is the possibility that this new reality about to settle in might be worse. Because while Ruth is able to ignore details during her first night, the morning wipes a bit of the shine off for clarity to set in. That’s when she sees a lipstick kiss on the mirror to spark a deep clean of Tom’s trailer. Since he’s just arrived himself, she chalks it up to being a byproduct of the previous tenant. So she continues on to the next room only to return with her suitcase before opening the closet to make room. And that’s when she finds the strands of red hair stuck to his sweatshirts. That’s when Ruth’s mind can’t simply dismiss the possibility he had an affair.
Writer/director Claire Oakley‘s debut feature Make Up therefore moves quickly from a smiling face of relief to a disappointed scowl of betrayal. Tom changes the subject when she brings it up by turning on the charm to try and make her forget, but the imagery is seared into her mind. Oakley splices those scenes in as though hot pokers stabbing Ruth to ensure no kiss will make what she saw disappear. Paranoia comes next. Glimpses at a red-haired woman in the distance fade when she approaches the spot to investigate. And soon all that’s left are residents and workers, none of whom fit the profile. But Jade (Stefanie Martini) comes close: beautiful, single, and a wigmaker with a head of red sitting there upon her shelf.
But what if this newfound paranoia is actually a psychological cry for help? What if these things Ruth is seeing are her brain asking her to look inward and reconcile whether Tom is who she truly wants to spend her life with? He’s her first real boyfriend after all. And she’s never had another relationship like it due to them dating since in high school. So maybe what she’s seeing is an internal desire to find yet another escape. First it was home and everything that brought. Now it was Tom himself and everything about home that he still possesses. What if Ruth had merely changed physical environments without changing the figurative place that’s been dragging her down like quicksand? What if she’s the mystery woman she seeks?
It’s a revelation Oakley shrouds in suspense thriller genre tropes, ratcheting up the suspense both internally and externally. Ruth sees impossible things like someone inside a trailer that’s been closed for fumigation. She also starts hearing possible ones even if she’s unsure yet of their context. Is this phantom woman hiding from her? Is she Tom’s mistress keeping out of sight? Or is that trailer’s window somehow a mirror projecting the Ruth that’s desperate to rise to the surface—a Ruth who’s only just now coming into her own where love, loyalty, and desire are concerned? We try and remember the details to discern which is correct. Are this person’s nails blue or red? Is her hair real or fake? They’ll expose where Ruth’s compass points.
We’re consequently made to believe one thing for a majority of the film only to discover it might be the opposite. Kai’s (Theo Barklem-Biggs) seething rage, Shirley’s secretive nature, and the rumors surrounding Jade all hold dual meanings to dig through alongside Ruth. Even if everything falls apart, though, does anyone deserve blame? It would be easy to set stakes that go well beyond their believable weight in a film like Make Up because viewers want there to be a reason why someone would leave their significant other for someone else, but Oakley refuses to fall prey to that impulse. The whole may seem a bit anticlimactic plot-wise as a result since the music, visuals, and tone create a palpable sense of dread, but love isn’t always permanent.
Ruth doesn’t owe Tom anything. Tom doesn’t owe Ruth anything. They’re young and lustful and comfortable, but that doesn’t mean they’re right for one another. And coming to terms with that possibility is a heavy thing to confront. Oakley’s decision to render events with an extreme air of uncertainty isn’t therefore out-of-place because they surely feel that way to Ruth. To move towards a new desire is to close the door on a previous one and that’s not as easy as flipping a switch when sexuality, friendship, and attraction start overlapping. So while emotions do run high, they cool off just as rapidly because there’s more at stake then feelings alone. Windsor is taking Ruth on a journey of crucial self-discovery. She’s shedding her skin to be reborn.
courtesy of Curzon