David Lynch is an undeniable master of his craft, a true maverick and one the greatest surrealist filmmakers of all time. In 1993 his daughter, Jennifer Chambers Lynch, would attempt to follow in his footsteps with her bizarre and disturbing directorial debut, Boxing Helena. However, after a harsh critical response and poor box office returns the film was ultimately considered a failure and it would be fifteen years before she would once again sit in the director’s chair. So, was the film a rare gem, simply unappreciated in its time, or yet another case of nepotism that culminates in inferior results? Well, let’s discuss.
The film stars Julian Sands as Dr. Nick Cavanaugh, an accomplished surgeon who becomes obsessed with the beautiful Helena (Sherilyn Fenn) after she blows him off following a one-night-stand. When she is mutilated in a hit and run accident he seizes on the opportunity to heal her wounds and imprison her in his house. Once he has taken drastic measures to ensure she is completely dependent on him, he believes it will only be a matter of time before he can make her love him back.
First off, there is no denying the originality here and the truly unsettling nature of the central plot. (Those of you familiar with it are already aware that “boxing” in this case does not in fact refer to pugilism.) However, given its disturbing subject matter it is no surprise that mainstream audiences were turned off. Most likely this was only compounded by the fact that the protagonist is intentionally unlikable; a pathetic, needy and completely degenerate creep who is truly the villain of the film. But these bold choices are actually the film’s strengths and about halfway through I found myself fully engaged, fascinated and wondering how this could have possibly received such a poor critical response upon its initial release. But then I kept watching…
To be fair, some of the issues with this film are due to the fact that aspects of it have not aged well. This is most evident in the long, drawn-out sex scenes that are far more baffling than erotic. Packed to the brim with candles, wind, cheesy emotional music and overly staged acts of eroticism the scenes look like they were lifted straight out of 90’s softcore porn and are impossible to take seriously. Same goes for some of the outfits, although seeing Bill Paxton rocking leather pants, a see-through shirt and a mullet without irony is worth the price of admission alone.
Truly where the film self-sabotages though is with the third act “twist”. I won’t reveal the details but suffice to say it destroys the work done throughout the first two thirds of the film. What had been developing as a fascinating exploration of madness and obsession is undone by a cheap plot device that is nothing but counter-productive. This is tragic because the characters up to that point were incredibly compelling, well developed and genuinely flawed humans in a story that was engaging, tense and profoundly disquieting. Certainly there were some rather hackneyed scenes of overt symbolism, (the bird in the cage, the boiling teapot, etc.) but the unique, disturbing vision that Lynch was crafting more than made up for it.
Had Jennifer Chambers Lynch committed fully to the narrative that had been developing so well throughout the film rather than attempting to be “clever” with cinematic parlour tricks, it may not have taken a decade and a half for her to helm another project. She also could have proven that children of legendary directors can themselves produce unique, quality art long before Brandon Cronenberg’s Antiviral would solidify that fact in stone.