One of the more controversial films of 1993, BOXING HELENA became as notorious for what happened behind the scenes as what occurs onscreen. The movie itself has the curious effect of nullifying its own scandal, failing to succeed even on its own, affectedly unorthodox terms.
Dr. Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) is the head surgeon at a major hospital who has survived a traumatic childhood but still suffers from psychological problems. Not the least of them is his obsession with the beautiful Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), who lives nearby and with whom Nick has had a
one-night stand. She's already written off the experience and begun a more consistent relationship with the brutish Ray (Bill Paxton), but Nick is still fixated on her; at one point he leaves his own lover, co-worker Anne (Betsy Clark), at his home cooking dinner to go spying on Helena making love
with Ray. He also pursues her more openly, even though she continually and nastily rebuffs him. When he stages a party at his mansion just to attract her over, she flaunts her own desirability by stepping into a fountain and then leaves with one of his friends.
Nick just won't take the hint, and steals her filofax just to lure her back to his house. As she is leaving, telling him off once again, she is hit by a car that runs over her legs, crushing them. Helena wakes up in a bed in Nick's guest room, and is horrified to discover that he has amputated
her destroyed limbs. Now Nick's prisoner, she nonetheless refuses to give in to his ministrations. No matter how much he tries to make her conform to his image of a woman who will come to love him, she continues to treat him with scorn. Nick's co-workers, including Anne, begin to wonder why he
hasn't been coming in to work, but he repeatedly turns them away at the door, and Helena fails in her attempts to alert the visitors to her predicament. Ultimately, when Nick places her in a wheelchair and she tries to escape, he removes her arms as well, placing her on a flower-bedecked shrine.
In one final attempt to rouse Helena's feelings for him, Nick brings a prostitute, China (Nicolette Scorsese) to the mansion and indulges in heated lovemaking with her before Helena's eyes. She appears to respond to him finally--but then Ray, suspicious over her disappearance, bursts into the
mansion. Shocked to discover Helena's predicament, he attacks Nick and knocks him unconscious. Nick comes to in hospital and, as he goes to visit Helena in the same building, we realize that he has dreamed the entire train of events since the accident.
The directorial debut of Jennifer Chambers Lynch, daughter of BLUE VELVET and "Twin Peaks" creator David Lynch, BOXING HELENA was controversial even before its completion, as word got around that the storyline was essentially about a man who chops off a woman's limbs and keeps her a prisoner.
The movie achieved further notoriety when producer Carl Mazzocone slapped Kim Basinger with a massive lawsuit, claiming she had backed out of an oral agreement to star in the film. The actress lost, to the tune of over $7 million. (At one point, Madonna was also set to play the leading role.) As
it happens, the filmmakers should be grateful that Basinger didn't wind up playing Helena; entirely unsuited to the part, she would have destroyed what little credibility the movie has.
As for the potential offensiveness of the subject matter, Lynch manages to partly redeem the material through a darkly stylized approach. None of Helena's amputations occur onscreen and throughout the movie she is never portrayed as a victim; she retains her independence and inner strength, no
matter what humiliations Nick visits upon her. The result could have been a weirdly compelling study of obsessive love and differing perceptions of beauty, but Lynch's fatal flaw is in her handling of the leads. Sands is made to play his single-minded romantic as a spineless, groveling wimp, while
Helena is a one-note ice queen for more than half the movie, never reacting realistically to her predicament. The characters are so lacking in dimension and unsympathetic that it's hard to care about them or their story.
While some of her father's talent for striking imagery (despite the overuse of a too-obvious Venus de Milo motif) seems to have passed down to Lynch, she has missed the crucial element that makes David's work accessible: the presence of an identifiable, empathetic protagonist to guide us through
the carnival of grotesqueries. Some individual scenes are evocative, and the climactic moments do finally work up some emotional resonance, but the basic lack of anyone to identify with strands BOXING HELENA in the realm of the ambitious but unsuccessful curiosity. (Violence, extensive nudity,sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)
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