For those unfamiliar with Rachel Maclean’s work, the Edinburgh-born multimedia artist created one of the 50-feet portraits of Billy Connolly which adorned the streets of Glasgow for The Big Yin’s 75th birthday. She also submitted a short: Spite Your Face to last year’s London and Venice film festivals. This piece focussed on a Pinocchio-type character – played by Maclean – who chases the lure of wealth within an abusive patriarchal power. It was made as a response to Britain’s decision to leave the EU and Trump’s presidential campaign. Within the mise-en-scéne its colours of choice were (Tory) blue and (Trump) gold.
The artist’s first full-length feature – included in the BFI’s 2018 festival programme – uses bubble gum pinks, violets and blues in every frame, and like its predecessor zones in on the post-Brexit zeitgeist in a similarly confrontational and acerbic manner. Make Me Up begins with the familiar aural tone and visual most Apple users attribute to the Siri application, when a disembodied male voice asks, “Siri, when is the world going to end?” before a woman screams “I don’t know!” and her cries resonate over the black screen.
Siri (Christina Gordon) in this case is a woman, pink of hair, born of a gelatinous lump of flesh. Unsure of how she ended up in such an inexplicable place, she becomes allies with Alexa (Colette Dalal Tchantcho) and is forced to compete against several other women (there’s even a Cortana too) in a hyper-real game show of sorts. All under watchful Orwellian eye(s) which fall from the ceilings and monitor everything and everyone via facial expressions and status updates.
In charge is the Figurehead (Rachel Maclean). An equally magenta-haired woman who schools her audience on the role of women within civilisation and through the history of art. Like her ‘pupils’ she has no voice of her own but is a conduit for the dulcet tones of historian Kenneth Clark, and specifically his 1969 BBC TV series Civilisation. She has other voices in her arsenal, namely those belonging to Andrew Graham Nixon and critics E.H. Gombrich and Robert Hughes, all stored within a device embedded in her arm. Her mannerisms scream Thatcher as her lips sync to the pomposity of the white, male patriarch. The girls before her know to mind their Ps and Qs and if they don’t? Well, naughty girls are punished, pitted against one another before elimination. The winner gets to eat.
Every inch of the film is aesthetically pleasing – although some may find it on the kitsch-side (when is that ever a bad thing?) – from Maclean’s production and costume design (she is also editor and responsible for the compositing and 2D effects) to Grant Mason’s prosthetics and Scott Twynholm’s score; it is all substance and style. Maclean asks us to consider the toxicity of social media, the depiction of women in politics, art iconography and beauty culture. The use of The Woman of Willendorf and the Venus de Milo is particularly powerful to illustrate the evolution of the female image, with nods to the works of Michelangelo, Botticelli, and Munch later on.
Make Me Up is a biting and thought-provoking satire which could not be more timely, not least in its celebration of the Suffragist Movement. It presents the violent and submissive fears, desires, control and pressures surrounding women. It asks questions of the role of women in contemporary feminism and art, as well as realigning the male gaze albeit sardonically amid Freudian visuals (the breast-shaped door handles and phallic dinner meat are particularly delightful). It has aspects of Alice in Wonderland by way of Sucker Punch via Hartbeat.
There is, however, no all-encompassing decorative pink bow of a conclusion – as Siri plots her escape thanks to the support of the sisterhood, you will recognise a few – and some may even find the final shot dispiriting but thankfully women persist. Director/Writer/Artist and all-round multitasker Rachel Maclean has put together something highly intelligent and imaginative. It deconstructs the beauty myth (perfection paint, anyone?) and reconsiders art history, criticism and all with a grin on its face and a knowing wink. More please.