“If I had made this film for the public, I would be terribly, terribly depressed right now,” admits Jennifer Chambers Lynch. Dressed from head to foot in black, the 25-year-old first-time director is dwarfed by the oversize circular restaurant table that holds her order: a pot of coffee and a Coke.
Lynch’s first and possibly last movie, Boxing Helena, was a long six years in the making. Early on, Kim Basinger, who agreed to play the film’s female lead and subsequently backed out, was the subject of a bitter court case which ultimately upheld the validity of her verbal contract (shamming cost her in excess of $9 million). Then there’s the controversy surrounding the film’s story: Helena is about Nick, a surgeon who is obsessed with Helena, a beautiful and unattainable woman. When she’s struck by a hit-and-run driver outside his house, he brings her home to care for her himself. She loses her legs in the accident, but after she pitches a few too many dishes his way, she loses her arms, too. No wonder Lynch is perpetually poised for confrontation; a little caffeine may well be in order.
“I thought I was making a film that five people would see, and I hoped three of them would dig it,” Lynch says. “I had no idea there was going to be the departures of actresses, the trial….” In addition to that overexposure, Lynch faced the expectations generated by her parentage (she’s David’s daughter). “Hollywood really wanted this to be a horror film,” she laughs. “Lynch! Lynch! People were expecting squirting arteries and chain saws.”
What they got is a bit more understated—sort of. Though it may seem a heavy-handed commentary on men’s treatment of women, Lynch conceived the film as an “awkward fairy tale” about the way men and women treat each other in relationships. Of her own romances, she says, “I’ve realized in retrospect that they were always about the thievery or forfeiture of self-esteem. That’s the sort of sickness that goes on with the pursuit of finding somebody to help you or fix you or make you feel safe or approved of.”
Lynch predicts that moviegoers will misconstrue her meaning, explaining that the film’s central conceit is not as sinister as it seems. “Nick doesn’t want to box her so he can have sex with her,” she says. “He wants to box her so he can take away the tools with which she leaves him.” Rather than mutilating Helena, she insists, Nick is recreating her as the Venus de Milo statue in his childhood home. “It was the only thing that ever looked back at him lovingly,” Lynch says. “He doesn’t see that form as something incorrect, he sees it as accessible. It doesn’t swat him or push him away.”
But some people have proven more literal-minded. At a recent premiere, says Lynch, members of a women’s organization stood outside the theater screaming, “Two-four-six-eight, it’s not sexy to amputate!”
“They go into it thinking “sexism-misogyny-objectification,’ ” says Lynch. “You will see images that say that in the film, but in order to break the mold you have to start with it. I can find sexism and misogyny in wedding vows if I look hard enough.”
Besides, Lynch leaves herself an escape hatch: At film’s end, Nick awakens to find that the whole creepy episode was only a nightmare. “People either see it as a relief or a cop-out,” she says matter-of-factly.
Most will probably opt for the latter. But equally problematic is the fact that Helena‘s viciously emasculating title character is so unpleasant that it’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for her victimization. Lynch is quick to explain her intentions. “I would never want it to appear that she deserves it,” she says of Helena’s ordeal. “Her defensiveness and her vixen qualities are there to victimize him. Because I didn’t want to victimize her. If I had to choose a victim, I wanted it to be Nick.” Helena’s dismemberment, she adds, is “not something I want to condone, which is why it ends the way it ends.”
So if Boxing Helena is but a dream, where has Nick arrived by the time he wakes up? “Ultimately, if he learns anything, he learns that, as in all obsessions, we tend to see something in the person that doesn’t really exist: a way to heal ourselves or a quality in them that we assume they have, but don’t know for sure,” says Lynch. In answer to those who would argue that it seems unlikely that a dream would spur Nick towards catharsis, she replies, “I’ve come to see that the rest of the world views dreams very differently from the way my family does.”
The beleaguered director has had a hard time convincing people that she intended her film to be about the way couples victimize each other, not solely about the way that men treat women. She stresses repeatedly that both characters are manipulative—“I don’t fault Nick and I don’t fault Helena. They’re open wounds”—but it’s hard to get around the fact that one is a limbless stump and one isn’t. If only she had reversed their genders.
“Images are so specific that there’s a little bit of danger in it,” concedes Lynch. That may be the understatement of her career.