#52FILMSBYWOMEN is a campaign launched by Women In Film in an attempt to raise awareness of female filmmakers. Their initiative asks cinephiles to watch a female-directed film once a week for an entire year, and in this series I will document the films I watched as a part of this pledge.
“The most fascinating thing about stardom is that it’s a kind of deformity, like a cancer.” Grandiose dresses, sensual posturing, fake smiles and self-destructive vanity – welcome to the arcane, insidious world of Helter Skelter, Mika Ninagawa’s intoxicating fable set in the dark heart of the Japanese modelling industry.
We open inside a hypnotic red-white room (not totally unlike the Red Room from Twin Peaks) where a dainty female figure stands covered head-to-toe in bandages. This is Lilico (Erika Sawajiri), a model, a fashion idol, a TV personality and our vain, self-obsessed protagonist. With her image plastered across various glamour mags, Lilico has become something of a national icon, but it’s quickly made clear that her striking looks wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a mysterious, and seemingly unlawful, beauty clinic. Having gone through numerous cosmetic procedures, her body now appears to be slowly breaking down; with dark blotches sprouting on her skin as if she’s decaying from the inside. And with the emergence of a younger, fresher face threatening to steal the limelight, her time as Japan’s top model may be coming to a perilous end.
Utilising Ninagawa’s experience as a contemporary artist and fashion photographer (you can find her work here), Helter Skelter is an indisputable piece of ravishing eye candy with imagery that grows increasingly surrealistic as the drama progresses. With its magnificent cinematography, extravagantly decorated sets bursting with scorching reds and ironic use of Ayumi Hamasaki’s “evolution“, the picture could be accused of indulging in the industry it depicts, but beneath its glamourous surface is a serious, pointed critique of Japanese pop culture and its exploitative nature.
Having burst onto the scene in a popular teen drama, the doll-faced Sawajiri makes for smart casting as the venomous Lilico. Though occasionally descending into melodramatic tendencies, she gives a bold, spirited performance that seems to appropriately reflect the film’s manic, superficial decor. Her overt narcissism and abusive, manipulative relationship with her assistant (Shinobu Terajima) can be caricature-like, but subtle hints towards her loneliness and insecurities shows a more complex persona behind her confident façade.
It’d be tempting to draw comparisons between this and Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, but to do so would be unwise. Nevertheless, the films could be sisters, so prominent are their similarities. With spectacular visuals and a plot wrapped in turmoil, Helter Skelter enthralls as a dizzying thrill ride.