Boxing Helena (1993): Jennifer Lynch Overhyped Debut

Sundance Film Festival 1993 (Dramatic Competition)–The off screen scandals that surrounded Jennifer Lynch’s Boxing Helena were far more interesting than her film. It should have been a small movie that deserved to flop, but, after all, it was made by David Lynch’s daughter.

Initially, Madonna was cast as the woman with no arms. When she turned it down, another star, Kim Basinger, was quickly recruited. But Basinger changed her mind too, prompting an unprecedented Hollywood trial that ended in a jury ordering her to pay a huge amount of money for commitment-breaking. The persistent notoriety gave the movie “name-recognition,” but it never became the provocative work Lynch intended it to be.

Lynch’s grandmother had a replica of the Venus de Milo, and she recalled how people would look at the statue–not as something flawed and broken, but as something beautiful. Using that as her guide, Jennifer wished to explore the kind of violence couples inflict on each other when they try to change one another in order to feel safer or ensure their lovers will never leave.

In the film, a surgeon named Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) can’t get over an obsession with his contemptuous ex-flame, Helena (Sherilyn Fenn). When Helena is injured in a car accident, Nick takes her in, amputates her legs and keeps her as a prisoner in his house. She continues to be hostile to him, and he amputates her arms.

A journey into the Lynchian realm of the grotesque and the bizarre, Boxing Helena could have been a deliciously demented film. Horror fans, however, were vastly disappointed because it lacked gore, sex, or dark humor. The film also became the target of women’s groups which protested the violence against women.

Lynch denied the charges of misogyny and pornography, claiming the mutilation was meant as a metaphor: The character’s self-esteem is her beauty and a man is taking that away from her.

All metaphors, Boxing Helena lacks authenticity or emotional power. The hype-baggage that accompanied the film made it impossible to see the twisted love story without prejudice. “This was just supposed to be a little low-budget movie,” Jennifer said in her defense.

In the U.K., critics savaged Lynch for accusing Brits– actor Sands is British–of being sexually inept. Other critics lambasted the ending as smacking of a typical tacked-on Hollywood cop-out. No doubt, Boxing Helena is neutralized by a denouement that turns the story into the surgeon’s dream-fantasy.

Producer Philippe Caland wanted to focus on the violent and erotic elements, but when interested directors wanted to turn it into a horror film, Jennifer became protective of her script: “I was in love with this story and it wasn’t about a guy hacking up some beautiful woman he wanted to screw.” Though she never intended to direct–“film was Dad’s thing and I had so much respect for what he did, that I just considered it all his”–she got aboard, “so that it wouldn’t turn into some horrible misinterpreted gore-fest.”

The fact that she was Lynch’s daughter motivated some people to see the movie out of curiosity; the Lynch name was a welcome mat for the bizarre.

Judging by the end result, nothing was gained by assigning a woman to the picture, which actually gave a bad name to indies and also demonstrated the power of hype.

Prior to its world premiere at Sundance, Boxing Helena was the hottest ticket in the festival; two hours later, the movie was dead.