DIRECTED BY: (credited as Jennifer Chambers Lynch)
PLOT: Unable to cope with his recent breakup with the temperamental Helena, surgeon Nick Cavanaugh finds himself caring for her at his house after a car accident.
COMMENTS: I honestly don’t recall which was the bigger source of discussion when Boxing Helena hit theaters. Was it David Lynch’s daughter helming her first feature? Or was it the prospect of so much sexiness revolving around “Twin Peaks” bad girl Fenn? Some of it was probably the titillatingly taboo premise of a man so infatuated with a woman that he hacks off all her limbs and puts her in a box. (Spoiler: there is exactly one box in this movie, and it does not contain Helena.) But the bulk of the attention circled around the fact that Kim Basinger had to pony up nearly $4 million as recompense for breaking her contract to appear in the title role (and that was after Madonna had rejected it outright). Many of the negative contemporary reviews congratulated Basinger on getting the better end of the deal—and with 30 years distance, watching the film with clearer eyes, we discover that those critics were absolutely right.
We learn at the outset that Nick has been emotionally scarred from his youth, with a slutty mom who rejected him and left him hungry for love. So maybe it’s easy to understand what he sees in Helena: the apathy, the dismissiveness, the belittling condescension… who could turn that down? What’s not at all clear is what she ever saw in him. Within two minutes of arriving at Nick’s party, she’s stripped down to her negligee and cavorting in the fountain. It’s hard to argue that she leaves anything on the table.
One of our most iconic weird actors, Julian Sands, is either terribly miscast or horribly directed. This beautiful, suave man flounces about like an emasculated mockery of masculinity, whining and pining for a lost love that it’s not clear he ever had. But as pathetic as he makes Nick, Lynch goes to great pains to make him more so, with mournful closeups as he jogs and his puppy-dog fawning over her. Later, when Helena mocks his poor bedroom skills, his defensive retort is, “If you were a real woman, you’d lie to me about our sex.” It’s hard to know if Sands is in on the joke or just fully committed to Nick’s painful lack of self-awareness, but his despairing cry of “she’s leaving?” actually left me in hysterical laughter.
Fenn, meanwhile, has almost nothing to do. She begins the film peevish; the loss of her legs makes her angry, the loss of her arms moreso. Her shift to a needier, more empathetic character is motivated not by any change in her but rather as a means of bringing about a change in Nick, an especially odd choice given that a massive plot twist essentially undoes all of the “learning” we’ve witnessed. So this movie about handicapping and torturing a beautiful woman in order to satisfy a broken male ego can’t even commit to its own questionable choices.
Once you establish that the whole thing is an elaborate melodrama with no real point, you can start to embrace it as unintentional comedy, with ridiculous situations, thudding dialogue, and overheated acting. This is best exemplified by the amazingly entertaining Bill Paxton, who shows up as Helena’s occasional boytoy in a Nigel Tufnel hairdo, mesh T-shirt, and leather pants, as cocksure as a 12-year-old trying to buy liquor. The movie may believe in him (when he busts out a Benjamin in payment for information, it cracks on the soundtrack with a snap), but there’s no reason we should. Bragging about his manhood one moment, hiding in the bushes like a Peeping Tom the next, he’s always absurd. The moment late in the third act when he sees what has become of Helena is a masterful double-take, a magnificent piece of comic idiocy.
Boxing Helena could have used a lot more of that, because it is resolutely dumb but lacks the wisdom to recognize it. Young Ms. Lynch seems to think she’s created something bold and erotic and profound. That is an impulse that should be cut off.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I am probably prevented by some unwritten law from divulging the end of Boxing Helena. I can only say that, instead of adding an extra twist to this bizarre tale, it deprives it of what little point it had.”–Quentin Crisp, Christopher Street (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Motyka. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)