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‘Boxing Helena’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 03, 1993

The nut, they say, falls close to the tree, which seems to be the case with Jennifer Chambers Lynch, whose first film, "Boxing Helena," rivals her father David's own twisted meditations on abusive sex. A gruesome tale of obsessive love and mutilation, it's less a work of art, however, than a luridly stylish expression of female self-loathing.

Lynch, who wrote and directed the screenplay (from a story by sick puppy Philippe Caland), takes her cues from a slew of disquieting sources: "Freaks," "The Collector" and "Psycho," to name a few. The creepy, deeply Freudian tale grows out of an effete surgeon's Oedipal fixation for his seductive mother, a preoccupation he transfers to Helena following his mother's funeral.

Helena (Sherilyn Fenn) is a classic castrater, a bitch goddess who is as selfish as she is voluptuous. A sensual creature with a passion for vodka, pomegranates and orgasms, she unceremoniously dumps the doctor (skittery Julian Sands) after a disastrous one-night stand. (Well, stand isn't quite the right word.) He tries to win her back, with flowers, notes and finally a glamorous party in her honor.

When she arrives, she shocks the guests by slipping out of her clothes and into the fountain, where she fondles the squirting jets seductively. To make her contempt for her host still more clear, she leaves with one of the doctor's better-looking colleagues on her arm. He conjures up an erotic fantasy.

As luck would have it, the next day she is run down by a car in front of his house. To save her life, he amputates both legs in the laboratory downstairs. Still, he's no match for her as she careers around the house in a prehistoric wheelchair mocking his sexual ineptitude. When she flings one too many hairbrushes at him, he removes her arms as well and places her in a three-sided box.

Like the captive heroines of "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!," "Blue Velvet" and even "Beauty and the Beast," she becomes emotionally involved with her captor. Not because she comes to understand him, not because she wants to protect her family, but because he proves he is no longer a premature ejaculator by having sex with a hooker while she looks on. Argh.

It's a metaphor and a comedy, says Lynch. Then why aren't we laughing?

Cluttered with symbolic references to entrapment -- caged birds, closed coffins, Venus on a pedestal -- the film is both a grotesque and a labored metaphor, complete with preachy, badly delivered dialogue that reinforces the message: The more diseased the relationship, the less room for personal growth. Love is never having to say you're sorry, but the knife slipped.

Of course, the subtext is something else again. Characters don't come much more unsympathetic than Helena, a claim-jumper and a man-hater whose aggressiveness threatens both women and men. Mean-spirited though she may be, she is above all in total control of her own aggressive sexuality, a quality your average misogynistic moviemaker punishes by death as opposed to dismemberment. The one blessing here is that the stumps are covered and the surgery occurs offscreen.

"Twin Peaks" tart Fenn, who took over the role of Helena when first Madonna, then Kim Basinger, had the rare good sense to back out of the project, brings no depth of any kind to the character. If she did, we might think of her as a human being instead of a thing. What Ms. Lynch has given us is a prettied-up snuff movie.

"Boxing Helena" is rated R for profanity, nudity, sexual situations and adult themes.

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