The phrase “feminist performance art movie” probably inspires dread in more people than it does anticipation. It conjures images of pretentious parody, the sort of thing that makes for easy comedy fodder in shows like Portlandia or any number of incel YouTube rants. Film pieces made by artists also prove confusing for many lovers of traditional film. Can and should such things be considered in the way your typical cinema release is? Whatever your stance, it’s easy to be cynical about the artform and assumptions it creates, and that makes it tougher for novices to explore such works for themselves. For one artist, her first foray into feature length art cinema could be the ideal gateway drug. But she was never going to make it easy.
The award-winning Scottish artist Rachel Maclean has been making waves for several years throughout the UK and abroad. She represented Britain at the Venice Biennale in 2017, she recently unveiled a 50-foot mural of legendary Glaswegian comedian Billy Connolly painted onto the side of a building, and she’s about to have her work displayed at the National Gallery in London. Her art, a multimedia blend of film, photography, performance, and satire, is known for its utterly over-the-top style and repulsive strangeness. She typically plays every role in her portraits and movies, using obviously fake CGI to create outlandish locations, and she uses a collage of audio taken from voices big and small to tell her tales.
Describing what she makes really does it no justice. This is the woman who did an entire art project inspired by LOLCATS. Her exploration of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum included one picture where she, dressed as a Donald Trump stand-in with a saltire on their face, loomed over the decapitated head of the Loch Ness Monster with a golf club. She did an artist's residency in a Birmingham shopping center, which included her dressing as a creature called the Satisfaction Bunny.
Make Me Up is her first feature-length film that premiered at this year’s London Film Festival before being screened on BBC 4. The basic story is of a group of women, each beautiful but styled like cartoon dolls, who find themselves unwitting contestants on an impossible game show. Headed up by a mysterious Figurehead (played by Maclean), they compete for an unknown prize in contests that pit them against one another to be the "perfect" woman. It’s pure Maclean but it’s also a major expansion of her artistic vision. No longer does she take on every role in the story, although she does give herself easily the best part. The scale is wider, the targets sharper, and the message intended for wide audiences, even if her style remains gloriously unchanged. After all, she’s dealing with tough truths so why should she sugar-coat it?
Okay, “sugar-coat” isn’t quite the right term to use in that context because MacLean is all about that candy floss glow. Imagine if Clive Barker made the Teletubbies and you’d be halfway to understanding her aesthetic. In Make Me Up, she combines an Instagram-friendly pastel color palate with the psychosexual styling of a Giallo movie. All the women have hair the color of bubblegum; the omnipresent surveillance cameras have enviably long lashes; the doorknobs are boobs; the slivers of food the women are fed comes in the form of a smiley-faced sausage (and that doesn't even get into the rotten-toothed sausages that talk). The vibrancy of it all is retina burning yet undeniably alluring, even though it’s all proudly disgusting. It’s plastic horror: Utterly unreal but no less unsettling.
Make Me Up wears its feminist badge proudly on its overtly frilly sleeve. The women are forced into games that prove their docility and beauty, fulfilling the only true roles required of their gender by patriarchy. They are judged to be good or bad mothers based on whether lifeless animatronic babies cry or not. They sit down for dinner every night but eat nothing with their childish knives and forks. Their attractiveness is judged by a never-explained series of requirements that change as often as the weather. The ones who win aren’t victors of anything. They’ve just “earned” the right to be literally objectified and consumed.
The lion’s share of Make Me Up’s dialogue comes from the British art historian Kenneth Clark and his highly influential BBC documentary series Civilisation. While Clark's deep dive into a history of Western art was considered revelatory in its day, it's been criticized in more recent times for its focus on male artists and the white Eurocentric gaze. Clark's view of art, as it is with most of the Western-driven artistic establishment, is the domain of men who look at women and make women to be looked at. Clark’s words are put in the mouth of the Figurehead, an imposing woman with very large hair who acts as judge, jury, and executioner to the women under her rule. Clark’s voice spouses the virtues of Venus and the idealized female form of "great art" while the Figurehead's prisoners plead with the camera to be spared a gruesome fate. Notably, for the majority of Make Me Up's running time, the rest of the women are forcibly silent. Suffragette Mary Richardson’s historical slashing of the Rokeby Venus features prominently as the ultimate act of gender vandalism (although it remains an odd choice to celebrate given the historical context that included Richardson being one of the British fascist movement’s most ardent women in the 1930s, something Make Me Up overlooks).
The story’s other big target comes in the form of social media and its toxic influence on how women are viewed by society. Siri, Make Me Up’s bemused protagonist, appears in flashbacks of sorts, where she chirpily chats into a camera for beauty vlogs. As her follower count rises, so do her insecurities about her large nose, and by the time it is revealed that she essentially signed up for her new hell under the guise of receiving plastic surgery, it’s too late to turn back. Perfection is promised, but it’s no surprise that all these girls ultimately end up looking the same.
The narrative builds to a fiery climax where the women regain their voices and become the mouthpieces for a condensed historical dialogue on feminism. Voices new and familiar are heard — Margaret Thatcher, Nicki Minaj, Germaine Greer, Emma Thompson, Rose McGowan, Katy Perry, to name a few. The messages are mixed, the platitudes veering between fierce and weak, and the effect is like watching every woman’s bottled up emotions burst to the surface in an explosion of catharsis. When you’ve been denied your voice for so long, you find you have a lot to say when you get it back.
The past 13 months that we can vaguely classify as the “#MeToo age” have had an earth-shaking impact on our society, well above and beyond the world of pop culture and the entertainment industry where the first bombs of resistance were thrown. Artistic responses to our situation as we see them take time and instant reactions frequently struggle to find the balance between rage and understanding. Make Me Up isn’t designed to specifically talk about #MeToo but the way it juggles its many themes on misogyny and its societal impact as dictated by capitalism remind us that what has happened in the past year is really a rumination of many lifetimes. And it's all done with a genre twist: Horror meets animation meets children's fantasy gone sour.
The intense experience of watching Make Me Up is hard to explain through any mere review. Even describing its plot or watching the trailer can’t do it justice. It must be viewed in its entirety with your complete attention, no excuses. Even if you don’t think this kind of thing is for you — and most people would probably say that — take a risk and see what Make Me Up reveals to you.