Helter Skelter (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 20th October, 2012

Chronicling the ups and downs – ultimately the very down downs – of fashion model icon Lilico (Erika Sawajiri), Mika Ninagawa’s Helter Skelter is based on a 2003 manga by Kyoko Okazaki, but it’s informed from head to toe by Ninagawa’s own career as a photographer. Shot in the bold colours that made her name, shown in a glorious 35mm print at the London Film Festival, Helter Skelter opens as a dazzling piece of painting-with-light and frenetic film editing as it throws us into montages of photo shoots and the twittering teenage girls who buy the fashion magazines on whose front pages Lilico’s face is ubiquitously slapped. It’s not content, however, with being a simple parable of hollowness of life at the top or the inevitable savagery of the fickle public – there’s surreal, almost horror-movie territory in this beautiful-looking flick.

Lilico is sexy perfection, but her skin starts peeling from shoddy plastic surgery – weird, stretchy, bruise-like marks appear on her skin. She has an agent who’s one of those women who’ve seen it all from her own days in front of the camera: a snippy, bitter mother-figure. She treats her assistant like shit, in sadistic displays of power whose depths I won’t reveal. She fears for her income and of being confronted by the loneliness of obscurity and thus her own shallowness when the up-and-coming ingénue Kozue (Kiko Muzuhara) arrives on the media scene. There are dark, horrible twists to all of these plot points, deliciously filmed – and yet the movie keeps stopping and starting instead of going deeper, seemingly undecided about whether it’s about a progressing descent into obscenity or a fragile girl who wants to be loved but is cracking up.

Also piling in a misfiring subplot about a mysterious prosecuting attorney who studies pictures of victims of botched plastic surgery and muses wistfully about Lilico as a “Tiger Lily,” by the time Helter Skelter gets to its final half hour, it’s still struggling to make sense of its many strands and has about ten seemingly declarative endings before its final shockeroo. This could have been a great film, but it’s a mess – albeit such a gorgeous, hypnotic mess that I’d probably watch it again.