MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Helena’: Bizarre Morbidity Without a Sense of Style

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It was probably worth every costly cent for Kim Basinger to get out of doing the dreadful “Boxing Helena” (selected theaters)--but you have to wonder whatever there was about it that persuaded her to consider doing it in the first place.

Julian Sands, his pronounced British accent unexplained, stars as Dr. Nick Cavanaugh, a chief surgeon in an unnamed North American city who as a child was extolled to work hard--and was simultaneously taunted by his sexy, amoral mother who flaunted her open nudity and casual affairs. When the mother dies, the doctor is all set to put her elegant mansion up for sale when he encounters the gorgeous but haughty Helena (Sherilyn Fenn), with whom he had once had a one-night stand and is now absolutely transfixed by her.

An awkward pursuit ensues, with her rushing out of the mansion and into the street, where she is struck by a car. When she regains consciousness she finds her legs have been amputated and that she has become the doctor’s prisoner. That he does not yet feel she is sufficiently dependent upon him is made overwhelmingly clear by repeated foreshadowing shots of a replica of the armless Venus de Milo.


In her directorial debut, Jennifer Chambers Lynch, who also wrote the script from Philippe Caland’s story, reveals her filmmaker-father David Lynch’s taste for the bizarre without any of his darkly perceptive humor and sense of style. “Boxing Helena” has been filmed with the straightforwardness of a standard TV movie, which means that it lapses swiftly into a protracted exercise in morbidity and silliness ending in a creaky cop-out device almost as old as the movies themselves.

Devoid of wit and irony, the film becomes merely a simple, blunt expression of extreme fear of women compounded by the preposterous, not to say dangerous, notion that absolute helplessness causes a woman to fall in love with a man for whom she had previously expressed only contempt. At any rate, it would take a great deal more talent and ability than Lynch possesses to enable us to see Nick and Helena’s love-hate nexus as some kind of extreme metaphor for Angst -ridden contemporary relationships between men and women.

Sands and Fenn seemed to have trusted Lynch completely, and both give selfless, committed portrayals that just might have worked in a more subtle and substantial context. Sands is expert at projecting infantile creepiness, and Fenn excels in the film’s one sane passage in which she attempts to explain to Nick what a woman needs emotionally from a man.

The year’s most thankless role surely must be that of Betsy Clark as Nick’s fiancee, who keeps throwing herself at a man who’s clearly terminally weird. Also on hand are Art Garfunkel and Kurtwood Smith, as Nick’s fellow doctors, and Bill Paxton, who gamely attempts to work up some humor as Helena’s macho boyfriend. “Boxing Helena” (rated R for two scenes of strong sexuality and for language) fails by a wide mark to live up to all the publicity stirred up by its producer’s suit against Basinger.

‘Boxing Helena’

Julian Sands: Dr. Nick Cavanaugh

Sherilyn Fenn: Helena

Bill Paxton Ray: O’Malley

Art Garfunkel: Dr. Lawrence Augustine

A Main Line Pictures presentation. Director Jennifer Chambers Lynch. Producers Carl Mazzacone, Philippe Caland. Executive producers James R. Schaeffer, Larry Sugar. Screenplay by Lynch from a story by Caland. Cinematographer Frank Byers. Editor David Finfer. Music Graeme Revell. Art director Paul Huggins. Set decorator Sharon Braunstein. Sound J. Bayard Carey. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for two scenes of strong sexuality and for language).