Jennifer Chambers Lynch wrote the screenplay for her debut, Boxing Helena, when she was 19. And it shows. Lynch’s adolescent take on the games people play does nothing so effectively as affirm her parentage. Daughter of David, Lynch adopts many of his directorial staples for Helena: the self-conscious grotesquerie, the Crayola palette, and even the campy music used to sinister effect (the tale of obsessive passion opens to Cab Calloway’s version of “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”).
Nick (Julian Sands) is a gifted surgeon who is thoroughly inept beyond the confines of the operating room. He’s obsessed with the sultry Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), who has long since discarded him after disastrous one-night stand. Though Nick has a devoted but mousy girlfriend, he continues to slaver over the brazenly sexual Helena. His obsequious attentions only make her more abrasive toward him, a situation which escalates until the day she’s struck and horribly injured by a hit-and-run driver. Which is an answer to Nick’s prayers: He installs her in his house, where the now-legless Helena is totally dependent upon him. When she starts using her arms to hit and throw, Nick removes them, too.
Though it takes pains to allot each character equal attention, Helena has more to say about Nick than it does Helena. But its foray into pop psychology on his behalf is not a startling one: Nick, we find, is the neglected child of a sexually provocative, approval-withholding mother. As the film opens, Nick attends his mother’s funeral—for reference, her casket descending is framed for an instant in a pudenda-shaped triangle of sky shot from below. The childlike man inherits his mother’s house, which, like his clothing, is too big for him, and using it as a setting, he attempts to reinvent his own unhappy childhood.
In an effort to keep the film from being solely a harangue about female victimization at the hands of men, Lynch has made Helena a vicious, emasculating shrew. The director’s intent is clearly to illustrate bilateral bad behavior on the parts of her characters, though she succeeds only at provoking the uncomfortable feeling that the odious Helena gets what she deserves. As a rape crisis counselor might tell Helena, Nick can’t “win” by hurting her body—even after he’s reduced her to a sideshow exhibit, she stays cool as a cucumber. Yet Lynch seems more interested in psychological than sociological themes. Helena’s flaw is that she uses her sexuality to control and belittle others. Nick’s problem is that he has no idea how to relate to women and a child’s certainty that you can make someone love you. He isn’t interested in sex so much as he is maternal acceptance, but his literal cutting off mirrors Helena’s own metaphorical. He’s sexually intimidated by women, and she’s as savagely intimidating as they come.
They’re the couple from hell all right, but it’s the woman who’s the amputee. Pre-op Helena lives her life like it’s one long Victoria’s Secret photo shoot. When Lynch wants to let us know that Helena is, in some sense, imprisoned by her body, she has the character undress in front of her window as Tears for Fears’ “Woman in Chains” plays in the background. But it’s not enough: Helena seems as doomed by her own carnality as a teen-age girl in a slasher movie. The relationship with boyfriend Ray which is used to establish her character is ludicrous, with dialogue to match. (Hers: “You bore me.” His: “I’m not your goddamned errand boy.”) And her behavior—she comes to a party at Nick’s house, strips to her slip, and, ahem, dances in his gushing fountain—makes Helena play like a male take on Thelma & Louise, with revenge being wrought upon coquettes instead of truck drivers.
What Helena does do, it does to death: It’s long on metaphors but short on finesse. The film’s dialogue is so unremarkable that its only striking one-liner—“if you were a real woman, you’d lie to me about our sex”—seems like a fluke, and its small successes—Sands’ desperately mewling Nick is a discomfiting picture of unrequited devotion—are undone by overkill. We realize that Nick has sculpted Helena into his childhood conception of female beauty without repeated flashbacks to the statue of the Venus de Milo that stood in his mother’s house. We pick up on the fact that Nick’s possessiveness has objectified Helena without repeated shots of a caged bird. We even realize that you can’t make someone love you before the song of the same name pops up on the soundtrack.