(1993) Written and directed by Jennifer Lynch; Story by Philippe Caland; Starring: Julian Sands, Sherilyn Fenn, Bill Paxton, Art Garfunkel, Betsy Clark, and Kurtwood Smith; Available on DVD
Helena (Sherilyn Fenn): “I’ll never need you.”
Nick (Julian Sands): “You need me now. None of those other
men ever cared for you, but I always loved you, and I’ll take care of you, no
Nick (Julian Sands): “You need me now. None of those other men ever cared for you, but I always loved you, and I’ll take care of you, no matter what.”
Helena: “You don’t love me. You think you can’t be a man without me.”
Nick: “But I have you.”
The controversy surrounding some films makes a bigger splash than the movie itself. Such is the dilemma with Boxing Helena, written and directed by then 24-year-old Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David Lynch). It’s probably best remembered for the controversy surrounding the production: three weeks before shooting was slated to commence, Kim Basinger walked out on the film, and a $3 million paycheck. She was later successfully sued, and Sherilyn Fenn (of Twin Peaks fame) was brought on. Considering Boxing Helena’s twisted premise and the filmmaker’s lineage, one might expect something truly unconventional. Oh, if only that were the case…
* Fun Fact: Prior to Basinger leaving, Madonna was slated to star in the role, but she also decided to bow out.
Dr. Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) is a gifted surgeon, skilled (presumably) in the reattachment of severed limbs. Despite the admonitions of his pal Dr. Augustine (Art Garfunkel), Nick can’t seem to get his ex-girlfriend, Helena (Sherilyn Fenn) out of his mind. Soon, he’s trying everything to win her back, which alienates him from his current partner Anne (Betsy Clark). I’m unsure if it was intentional, but Anne is so vanilla that anyone else might be an improvement. The friction comes to a head when Helena appears at Nick’s party (which was intended to celebrate Anne and Nick’s engagement), and he follows her around like a lost puppy. In the following scene, Nick finagles a way to get Helena back to his sprawling estate, where an unfortunate accident forces her to be his patient and prisoner.
The over-the-top performances in this would-be erotic thriller border on camp. Instead of being intimidating and sinister, Sands portrays Nick as whiney and sniveling. Fenn does the best she can with an underwritten role, as the largely unsympathetic Helena. She doesn’t deserve the hand she’s dealt, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for her either way. The normally reliable Bill Paxton (sporting a terrible wig) is terribly miscast as Ray O’Malley, Helena’s narcissistic boyfriend. We’re supposed to accept him as a modern-day Lothario, but he comes across as a cartoon character.
Watching Boxing Helena, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about (including a threatened NC-17 rating). While there are a few borderline slow-motion sex scenes, there’s nothing that wouldn’t pass muster on ‘90s-era Cinemax (aka: Skinemax). Besides its tedious pacing, however, the movie’s biggest fault is pulling its punches with the subject matter. Lynch had an opportunity to show something truly grotesque, but what remains onscreen is a largely bloodless affair. The surgical procedures that render Helena limbless are left offscreen. Instead, we’re left with a common magician’s trick, presenting the illusion that there’s nothing underneath the table supporting her (I spent half of the movie wondering how they hid Fenn’s legs when she sat on a bed or in a wheelchair). If nothing else, Boxing Helena serves as a textbook illustration of how arbitrary the MPAA can be. I can only conclude that the ratings board people were so fixated on the unsavory premise, they neglected to pay attention to what was actually depicted.
(Spoiler Alert) It somehow seems fitting that the icing on this under-baked cake is the big reveal (Gasp!) that it was only a dream. Jennifer Lynch’s tale of obsession and control is a ham-handed, unsubtle metaphor for the level of control that some men would like to exert against their wives or significant others. What we’re left with is a movie that’s all hype and no show. Anyone expecting something that overwhelms our senses or stretches the boundaries of our endurance should likely search elsewhere.
Sources: “Fenn Loses Limbs as Lawyers Grill Kim,” by Michael Fleming, Variety (April 27, 1992); “Lynch: Basinger Not Deceived,” by Donna Parker, The Hollywood Reporter (March 1, 1993); “Lynch: Basinger Loved Script,” by Donna Parker, The Hollywood Reporter (February 26, 1993)