From American Psycho to Jennifer’s Body, we unpack how beauty is used to empower its characters or reveal what’s lurking beneath the surface
When you Google the words ‘revenge make-up’, the results mostly refer to the idea of showing an ex-lover what they’re missing through the beautifying effects of a makeover. Many cite achieving a ‘glow-up’, which seems intrinsically tied to the before-and-after makeover scene often depicted on film, from Pretty Woman (1990) to The Princess Diaries (2001).
There’s another kind of makeover scene though, often linked to a different kind of revenge, or sometimes representing melancholy, ecstasy, or rage. It always signals character development, not necessarily from bespectacled and dowdy to blowdried and desirable, but perhaps from vulnerable to armoured, or from human to monstrous.
The rituals surrounding beauty are often described as forms of self-care – which, of course, they absolutely can be – but they can also be expressions of darker emotions and more difficult transformations. Whether it’s a drastic haircut after a devastating break-up or a concealer which hides a dark past as well as a pimple, these are makeovers which explore our relationship with beauty beyond looking or feeling good. These scenes have more in common with Michelle Pfeiffer’s zonked-out secretary suiting up as Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) or the tragic body horror of Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis’ Oscar-winning prosthetics and make-up in The Fly (1986).
Here, we unpack alternative takes on each step of your beauty routine as depicted on-screen.
“I use a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Then I apply an herb-mint facial mask which I leave on for ten minutes while I prepare the rest of my routine.” Patrick Bateman, the homicidal investment banker played by Christian Bale in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) is introduced to viewers while undertaking a truly excessive morning routine (lotion before the shower?!). While the multiple moisturisers indicate the greed and superficiality of the 1980s setting, the regime also captures Bateman’s metamorphosis from sociopath to Wall Street yuppie. He sculpts his flesh to fit the socially accepted mould of fit, healthy and handsome, with arguably the most chilling removal of a peel-off mask ever captured on camera.
The protagonists of Jennifer’s Body (2009) and Young Adult, (2011) played by Megan Fox and Charlize Theron, spend much of their respective films looking like women who have already been made over. In fact, it’s a plot point in both movies that the characters are exceptionally beautiful. However, both women in these Diablo Cody-penned films feature in micro-makeover scenes: Fox’s Jennifer as she readies herself for the school dance and Theron’s Mavis as she prepares to reconnect with her high school boyfriend. Despite their perceived status as ‘hot girls’, neither is operating at full power – Mavis because high school is long past and her ex is now married with a baby, and Jennifer because she is a succubus who feeds on the flesh of teen boys. In both scenes, the women gaze at their own reflections to apply a thick layer of foundation, smoothing away their imperfections and perhaps their humanity as well. A good base, Cody seems to be telling us, covers a multitude of sins.
There is an unforgettable scene in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 revisionist war film Inglourious Basterds where Mélanie Laurent’s character Shosanna awaits the culmination of her plan to destroy the Nazis who murdered her family. As she prepares for the crucial moment, which is to take place at a film premiere, she swipes rouge across her cheeks with her fingertips to the strains of David Bowie’s Cat People. This is no subtle YouTuber daub of colour, however – Shosanna smears it over her cheekbones like warpaint. Regardless of her outwardly glamorous appearance (she also fills in her eyebrows and colours her lips), Shosanna’s makeover signifies her steely resolve and presents her as a heroic figure – she, and we, know she will be victorious. Much like the Rocky-esque sports montage, this is a makeover that means business.
If eyes are the windows to the soul, surely any crisis of morality should be reflected in one’s choice of eye make-up? In a brief but much-regrammed scene in Terrance Malick’s 1973 neo-noir Badlands, Sissy Spacek’s Holly, on the run with her murderous boyfriend and temporarily holed up in a treehouse hideout, doodles around her eyes with kohl. Liberated from her controlling father and embarking on a life of crime with Martin Sheen’s Kit, this moment of girlish experimentation is both charming and sad – despite her misdeeds, Holly is still just a teenager. Eye make-up would later take centre stage in Park Chan-wook’s 2005 thriller Lady Vengeance. After completing a prison sentence for a crime she did not commit, Lee Young-ae’s heroine Lee Geum-ja greets an acquaintance, her eyes lined with crimson. “Your style has changed. What’s with the blood-red eyeshadow?” they ask. “I don’t want to look kind-hearted,” comes the reply. It’s worth noting that red-ringed eyes (and vengeance) enjoyed a renaissance that year thanks to My Chemical Romance’s utilisation of similar make-up in the promotion of their album – you guessed it – Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.
Lipstick, particularly red lipstick, is perhaps the most significant type of make-up depicted on screen. Even in more conventional makeover scenes, it is always coded as seductive and a little bit dangerous. In Abel Ferrara’s 1981 rape/revenge film Ms 45, Zoë Lund plays a mute seamstress named Thana who is repeatedly attacked and assaulted. Once Thana seeks retribution, the camera lingers on her mouth as she applies a heavy coat of ruby-hued lipstick. As we near the climactic scene, which takes place at a costume party, she completes her makeover by donning a nun’s habit. The moment acts almost like an inversion of a pivotal scene in Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947). Sister Ruth, played by Kathleen Byron, overcome with jealousy and on the brink of madness, removes her nun’s habit and, in glorious technicolour close-up, runs red lipstick across her mouth to the horror of Deborah Kerr’s Sister Clodagh. Both scenes explore the virgin/whore dichotomy by juxtaposing the neat purity of ecclesiastical dress with the gory sensuality of the make-up (a look so striking that it was recently recreated on HBO TV show Euphoria).
Lipstick can also be a conduit for all-out mania, as with Natalie Portman’s Nina in Black Swan (2010). Disturbed ingenue ballerina Nina steals a talismanic red lipstick from the dressing room of her retiring predecessor and applies it before confronting her director, biting him when he kisses her, the lipstick giving her the bloody mouth of an animal. Later, she exits a bathroom stall to find ‘WHORE’ scrawled across the mirror in the same shade of scarlet. More hysterical still is Diane Ladd in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990). Her character, Marietta Fortune, going out of her mind with guilt, rubs a scarlet lipstick over her wrist like a make-up artist swatching for colour. Later, as she calls Harry Dean Stanton’s character Johnnie Farragut to confess to her crimes, she turns towards the camera revealing her entire face, neck, and hands are now painted with the colour.
Hair can be literally weaponised – see Pam Grier’s Coffy concealing razor blades in her hair in the 1973 blaxploitation film of the same name – but it’s the cutting of hair that often carries the most symbolic weight on film. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) to Interview with the Vampire (1995), self-inflicted haircuts have often been employed to indicate the manifestation of a desire for change. Outside of cinema, we need look no further than Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair from 1940 (recreated by Salma Hayek in the 2002 biopic) and, more recently, Britney Spears public head-shaving in 2007. Hair has held powerful connotations throughout history, from Samson to Rapunzel, and the removal of hair can be seen as the removal of power, not to mention a form of desexualisation. However, when it is the character themselves, often a woman, cutting off her own hair, it can be read as a reclaiming of agency and assertion of control over her own image.