Make Up is a film best experienced going in blind. Before sitting down to watch Claire Oakley’s debut feature, it was described to me as a neo-noir thriller. To a certain extent, that’s true, but the film is much more. It’s an infidelity movie, a breakup movie, and occasionally even a surprisingly romantic movie. The film’s slow pace won’t be for everybody, even at just 86 minutes. If you appreciate surreal character studies that emphasize showing rather than telling, though, you’ll gravitate towards Oakley’s approach.
Molly Windsor gives a gripping performance as Ruth, a young woman who grows increasingly suspicious of her boyfriend Tom (Joseph Quinn) after finding a lipstick stain on his mirror. The plot thickens when Ruth finds a strand of red hair on his clothing. It isn’t long until Ruth’s suspicion snowballs into an obsession, bringing her closer to an alluring woman named Jade (Stefanie Martini). The colorful Jade has a collection of wigs, one of which happens to be red. Although Jade could be having an affair with Tom, Ruth and her begin to develop an unlikely friendship.
Oakley’s greatest strength as a director is making the most out of very little. The film’s budget isn’t the most substantial and its setting isn’t the most glamorous, but Nick Cooke’s atmospheric cinematography injects every setting with an unnerving vibe. Even when not much seems to be happening, the audience feels the uneasiness that Oakley aims to create. Ruth isn’t the most talkative character, as she’d rather dive deeper into obsession than confront Tom about their relationship. With very little dialogue, though, Windsor makes Ruth easy for the audience to read.
Ruth and Tom don’t share the deepest connection, although perhaps that’s the idea. She has more chemistry with Jade, which only adds to the tension between them. What is Jade to Ruth? A rival, a friend, or something deeper? Much like the film itself, their relationship is often difficult to put a label on. That’s precisely what makes their scenes so fascinating to watch.
Make Up almost feels like the anti-version of another recent film about suspected infidelity, On the Rocks. Where On the Rocks treated its subject matter with lighthearted comedy and charm, Make Up is paranoia-inducing in all the right ways. Another thing that both have in common is that each was directed by a talented female filmmaker. It’s been over two decades since Sofia Coppola made her feature directorial debut with The Virgin Suicides, which also centered on an obsessed teenage girl. It’s hard to say if Oakley will have a career on the same level as Coppola’s, but she certainly showcases the potential in Make Up. Her voice is unique, her style is absorbing, and I look forward to seeing what she does next.