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Rachel Maclean, 'Make Me Up' 2018. Courtesy the artist

Make Me Up establishes its key themes with a Pygmalion-like birth sequence. The film opens with a familiar phone sound-effect and an eccentric, sonorous male voice commanding a new feminine AI. The gendered juxtaposition continues with a shot of St Peter’s Seminary, a crumbling brutalist building in Cardross that’s been given a digital bubblegum makeover. Instead of concrete, it’s clad in fleshy pink tones and the distinctive rounded prayer chapels have been transformed into elongated breasts—seemingly disembodied from the nursing Madonna of art history. The lurid aesthetic is immediately recognisable as Maclean’s and I was interested to see whether it would transition successfully to a feature-length, narrative film. 

The story concerns a dystopian clinic where a group of young women (all named after AIs) compete for social media approval under the authoritarian gaze of a glitzy matron figure. This figure speaks almost exclusively in the resonant voice of Kenneth Clark and delivers monologues from his 1969 TV series Civilisation. Out of time and out of context, the sexualised undertones of this language is made uncomfortably obvious. The film also appropriates the words of Ernst Gombrich, Robert Hughes, and Andrew Graham-Dixon, as well as posing the women in competitive art historical tableaux, which reinforces its message that the history of western art and representation has been (or is) oppressive to women. There are further twists and a collective rebellion that leads to the young women quite literally recovering their voices.  

One of the challenges of a film driven by concept rather than character is that the concept needs to be airtight, with a sense of internal development or revelation. The film drags in sections because there isn’t much narrative surprise, nor peril for the interchangeable AI-labelled women. It’s hard to care for these characters. In fact, for a film that is concerned with the contradictions of modern femininity and the reduction of women to identikit social media clones (all similarly contoured and rehashing the same upbeat scripts to webcam) it’s odd that the characters are pretty much indistinguishable and ultimately forgettable. The most memorable and interesting character is the matron/Clark hybrid, in part because she is a bizarre and unexpected creation, but also because she is the only one with a voice. This tells us that those allowed to speak hold the power; however tenuously, as in the film the women rebel by wrangling control of the volume mechanism. 

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Rachel Maclean, 'Make Me Up' 2018. Courtesy the artist

The film is seductively enjoyable, a kitsch culture cauldron that remixes feminine iconography from YouTube make-up tutorials to the suffragette attack on the Rokeby Venus. An especially striking segment replays pop-feminist soundbites from Susie Orbach, Germaine Greer, Taylor Swift, the Guerrilla Girls, and many more. The clash of voices and opinions could appear either energising or divisive, depending on your viewpoint, and this quagmire is deliberately left unresolved. The film strikingly ends with the seminary in ruins, but this is not a straightforwardly happy ending where the women are suddenly free. Instead, it raises the more troubling question of not only whether civilisation is worth preserving, but whose civilisation, given that all are to some extent compromised.

Men appear infrequently as shadowy authority figures, or as the disembodied male gaze that floats throughout the space observing the character Siri as she applies make-up in the fragile solitude of her room. Masculinity is also hinted at, humorously, in the phallic foods of this universe. The women salivate at the sight of enormous sausages that the matron brutally chops into pieces. These brown objects intrude on the pretty pink of the film as a vile, threatening, yet somehow appealing nourishment that the girls compete for. Because of the repressed glossiness of the film environment, the sensorial horror intrudes mainly in these bodily needs and desires that are signified by squelching sound effects; these are revoltingly effective, but overused. 

The darker side to feminine making up, role play and transformation has been explored and exposed by feminist artists since at least the mid-twentieth century. Maclean’s film continues this tradition by suggesting the destruction of a western visual economy in which women’s bodies are rigidly policed—as much as by themselves and other women as by external forces. And yet, the film takes so much obvious pleasure in feminine gloss and glitz, in make-up and performance. There isn’t enough contrast or horror to subvert the sight of girlish young women parading across the screen in comically frothy underwear. There is an acknowledgment of a tremendous psychic and social problem but, ultimately, the accumulation of cultural signifiers and reference points would need to be tethered to a more rigorous critique in order to avoid recuperation by those very forces it aims to oppose. 

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Rachel Maclean, 'Make Me Up' 2018. Courtesy the artist

That said, however, the film may contain clues to further resistance. Eyes are a recurring motif throughout the story. They are disembodied, gazing upon the young women’s bodies and are also deployed strategically as defensive weapons. With the Catholic imagery as backdrop, this ocular motif recalls the classic paintings of St Lucy who is usually depicted carrying her eyes around on a plate. According to the legend Lucy pledged herself to Christ and, in order to dissuade an earnest male suitor who had complimented her beautiful eyes, she violently plucked them out. Following this thread leads to the conclusions of 1970s feminist film theory: it is only the radical destruction of beauty and visual pleasure that will free women from the seductive lure and constraints of the feminine beauty performance, and of patriarchal-capitalist scopophilia. With the heightened surveillance culture of social media and intensifying beauty regimes, however—and as evidenced by the paradox of the film—the negotiation of those internalised expectations will not easy to put into practice. 

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Victoria Horne is Senior Lecturer in Art and Design History at Northumbria University in Newcastle