So Erika and I watched Boxing Helena last night. It's fascinating - a very unconventional use of conventional narrative structures, telling a story that is equal parts Harlequin Romance and Human Centipede. I remembered liking it when I saw it theatrically, first run - in the midst of a furor of negative criticism and in the awareness that Madonna and Kim Basinger had been sued for walking off the film. But I had forgotten exactly where it was going; there was so much that was bizarre and fresh in it that I can't but recommend it - though there are some problems, too.
The thing I loved about it - it takes you non-judgmentally into the heart of obsessive male sexual damage. Lynch surely does not approve of her main male character's behaviour - it's not like she gives him a moral carte blanche; but she doesn't let any judgments she may have about what he does interfere with her seeing things through his eyes, which is a bit of a remarkable feat, given that no doubt, as a woman, Lynch has been the uncomfortable recipient of the unhealthy male gaze herself. Said main character, Nick Cavanaugh, played with verve by Julian Sands, is a successful surgeon with a supportive girlfriend and an apparently good life, even though he has some unresolved mother issues and sexual insecurities. Alas, as good as his life may seem, he is obsessed with something he cannot have, a beautiful, but cold and vain woman (Helena, played by Twin Peaks' Sherilynn Fenn), whom we see rejecting other men as well (including Bill Paxton, whose presence in the film I had forgotten). She's not very pleasant, but somehow, despite a bitchy exterior, tolerates Cavanaugh's semi-stalkerly schemes to get her attention, even though she knows he's romantically fixated on her. Along the way, as he pursues his obsession, we experience voyeuristic images of her undressing, as seen through Cavanaugh's eyes - Lynch keeps his hands visible on screen - and are invited to sympathize more with him than her, even though his behaviour at best often seems annoying and at worst - well, you may find yourself thinking of films like Silence of the Lambs or the Jeremy Renner version of Dahmer at times, though Cavanaugh does NOT become a serial killer and neither skins nor eats people, Helena or otherwise. Suffice it to say that his predilections are simply that far far from normal.... and the sympathy with which he is treated that unexpected (Silence of the Lambs isn't such a good touchstone there but Dahmer certainly is).
Of course, Helena ends up a prisoner in Cavanaugh's house, with him taking some fairly radical measures to keep her there, but if you don't yet know the details, it's best I not spoil it for you. There is never any real sense of her as a character - no Story of O/ 50 Shades of Grey seduction into her new role - and in fact -- weirdly, given that it's written and directed by a woman -- Lynch does a better job with Cavanaugh than she does Helena, who does transform a little, without going full Stockholm-syndrome. There are problems with the film as well, however - namely:
a) Why is Art Garfunkel in it? He barely serves a purpose, feels like he has been worked into the story at the last minute to justify his casting. It's possible that he was included because a far greater film about male sexual insecurity and obsessiveness, Bad Timing, stars him, but he is given vastly less to do in this role. He seems misplaced.
b) What's with the ear? Maybe I missed something, but Cavanaugh has an unexplained ear infection (or such) that he is seen treating. Perhaps this is meant to symbolize a failure to hear what is being said to him, but if so, it isn't emphasized enough to make it seem meaningful or significant. There is no dialogue about it; he just walks around with a cotton ball in his ear, and is once seen medicating it. It ultimately has the feeling of a random detail thrown in for no good reason, a pointless distraction. It makes you wonder if there were scenes cut that it actually mattered to.
c) The film pulls its punches when it comes to body horror and sexual imagery, possibly due to budgetary issues, but maybe also because Lynch is afraid to go "all the way" with her story. Janet Maslin - one of the film's few supporters, in the initial critical onslaught - likes the film for avoiding pornographic exploitation, which is what she'd been led to expect, but - spoiler alert! Do not read the rest of point C if you want to preserve your innocence about the plot points of this film! - what on earth is the point of an erotic amputee movie without visible stumps? Given what was accomplished, effects-wise, in the film Cutter's Way, couldn't more have been done to make Helena's reduction to a trunk and head more realistic? (You never really buy her as a quintuple amputee - she sits up too straight!). What happens to her severed limbs? (That would have been an interesting scene to see). Why was it deemed necessary (effects budget aside) for Helena to grow her arms and legs back for the fantasy lovemaking sequence? And how can it be that, despite her gradually being seduced into at least a sort of sympathy for Cavanaugh, she and he never consummate their relationship post-amputation? Even if it just ends up a pity-fuck, the film stops short; that MAY be necessary to the final twist ending - because perhaps we could not so easily and thoroughly rehabilitate Cavanaugh if his fantasy was allowed to come to fruition? One wonders if alternate endings were written, even filmed. Perhaps we could go full on Venus in Furs, and have a "happy ending" (even in the fantasy-within-the-fantasy) where she becomes utterly commanding of Cavanaugh and he becomes her willing slave; that would have been quite the happy ending...
(Point C continues, here, spoiler-wise). Don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm myself particularly kinky. I have a mild fascination for stump-humping, perhaps borne of an interview with Annie Sprinkle, who I was geared up to ask about her own amputee sex bust before she drew a line forbidding the question, but the idea that someone could go to jail for having sex on film with someone missing a foot - which Sprinkle did - is kind of fascinating to me, how public gatekeeping of morality extends into sexual life: "This kind of body is not normal, so you may not suggest sexual interaction with it, lest we corrupt the general public." Yet there really are amputees out there; they have erotic lives of their own; and they do want to be experienced as desirable... though perhaps not through the lens of fetishism: one nice detail of the film is that Cavanaugh doesn't sever Helena's limbs because he has stump-lust; in fact, her limblessness in fact has no impact on, positive or negative, on his obsession with her. He loves her regardless of the shape of her body (unlike her jealous lover - the Bill Paxton character - who says Cavanaugh has made a "freak" of her).
d) And like I said, something always feels missing, not-quite-believable, in the way Helena is presented. She is nothing but sadistic, vain, demanding and unpleasant in the first half of the film; later, in the post-accident narrative, she softens and actually becomes a bit more complex and likeable, but - though there is maybe a good reason why this softening is not wholly convincing - we don't entirely feel convinced by what we are seeing, or by Fenn's performance. Given how three dimensional and compelling the Sands character is, we would like to see the same with Helena, and we never really do. She is MOSTLY an object of fantasy, and her behaviour is tailored to suit that role...
But note: none of my objections to the film are moral or political. Boxing Helena is deeply perverse and unsettling, but fairy tales can be that way; it's also highly original and utterly compelling. And while we may judge the character of Cavanaugh all we like outside the film, using him to cast a light on unwholesome and unpleasant behaviours from men - it's still important, in a work of art, to get inside characters, to understand what makes them tick. Again, a good comparison point may be the Jeremy Renner Dahmer film (the only Dahmer film I have seen); we are invited to understand Dahmer (and Cavanaugh), and in order to do so, have to suspend our judgements about him, at least while the story is unfolding. This is unsettling indeed, but it also is enriching in a way a film that simply portrayed Dahmer as monster could not be. Cavanaugh is a creep, for sure; but men CAN be creepy, and there's value in letting down our guard long enough, at least in a work of art, to try to understand that creepiness: "This is how not to be a man."
...which is where the film excels; both Lynch and Sands understand the character of Nick Cavanaugh remarkably well, and Sands brings him vividly to life in a way that is kind of remarkable and brave (and probably was ultimately kind of bad for his career, sadly, though one hopes he remained proud of the film later). Obviously Erika and I watched it last night in his memory. I think my readers might enjoy doing so, as well. The full film appears to be on Youtube, though (no pun intended) it's cut into several pieces.
RIP, Julian Sands.