Director out on a limb, 'Helena' with nary a leg to stand on

September 03, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's interesting to speculate on the fate of "Boxing Helena" were its director named Jennifer Chambers instead of Jennifer Chambers Lynch. Here's my guess: A three-night run on one of the lesser pay cable channels.

It's the Lynch pedigree -- Jennifer's link to her father, the great and troubling David Lynch -- that validates the film and confers upon it honorary membership in the American avant-garde, where it belongs about as appropriately as Norman Rockwell did among the New York impressionists.

In fact, so pitifully and meekly middle-brow is "Boxing Helena" that it runs in panic from the very issues of radical sexuality it conjures up. Out of the grudging sense of fair play, hard to maintain in these days of high paganism, I won't "give it away" -- the trick ending, that is. But it's about as cheap as trick endings get.

The film proper is handsome in that glistening, soft-focus, high-quality porn way. It's set in a comfortable universe where every car has been polished to high burnish and the heavy furniture of the mansion that is the principle setting glints with highlights off the mahogany. They must have spent half of Kim Basinger's money on Lemon Pledge!

The story is a cautionary tale: It warns to be wary of geeks bearing gifts, particularly when that gift is obsessive unrequited love. Sherilyn Fenn plays Helena, beautiful, sexually liberated and utterly dismissive of those who do not advance the agenda of her own pleasure.

Helena's hobby is hurting men: She likes to pick them up, turn them on, make them fall in love with her and then dismiss them airily and move on to another sucker. She's made to order for the kind of man who loves women who hate men.

That particular bloke would be Julian Sands as Dr. Nick Cavanaugh, a gifted surgeon and a very sick puppy. Sands, a British actor who was so good long ago as an ardent romantic in "A Room With a View," has fallen on hard times ever since (he was a flying male witch in "Warlock," one of the most truly ridiculous movies ever made) and this isn't likely to redeem his career. His Dr. Nick is one of your basic-issue weenie boys, self-hating, weak, cowardly, without pride or spine. When he smiles, it says KICK ME HERE on his teeth. Seduced and abandoned by Helena, he's been driven not into bitterness or anger but into true dementia. We are given to understand that he in some fashion identifies her with his late mother, who rejected him just as cruelly while she dallied with a parade of lovers. The psychology is definitely on the 1 + 1 = 2 level.

Though Nick has a flourishing career and a beautiful, ardent fiance, he can't get Helena out of his mind. He throws an elaborate party, invites her and is humiliated that she chooses to leave with another guest. But she leaves her purse behind. He seizes this object like a fetishist, and uses it as bait to lure her to his house. There, gloriously, she treats him like a dog (he loves her for it!).

But, trying to flee from him, she is hit by a car. When she wakes up, she's been enthroned as queen of the manse, with Nick as her willing, eager, self-abasing, worshipful servant. Oh, and he cut off her legs.

The movie bears certain resemblances to Billy Wilder's great "The Collector," in that it's a study of a sexually weak male taking a woman captive and, out of misunderstanding of the physics of love, trying to brutalize her into loving him. But the difference is more significant. Not merely was "The Collector" much better, it sympathized entirely with the terrified young woman; it had a moral center.

"Boxing Helena," however, sympathizes with Dr. Geek; it invites us to feel his pain at rejection and to enjoy his retribution over her sexual humiliation. In a terrible and cheap way, it suggests that she deserves what she gets, as if anyone could deserve that.

Later, he trims her arms, and props her in a little high chair in the dining room where he feeds her bonbons and cherries. It's about that time I got to wishing I could take a shower or something, so grimy was I feeling. Ick. Ugh. Lynch, who is, it must be admitted, an assured technician, films this as a scene of great tenderness, evoking the ways in which she's falling in love with him. Does the phrase "Stockholm Syndrome" mean anything to these kids?

But, even as it dares to address the unthinkable, "Boxing Helena" is also preparing its getaway. In the end, it cops out. You keep telling yourself: "It's not even a movie."

"Boxing Helena"

Starring Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands

Directed by Jennifer Chambers Lynch

Released by Orion Classics

Rated R

... **

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