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At the Movies: ‘Boxing Helena’

September 2, 1993

Undated (AP) _ ″Boxing Helena″ is going to be much-maligned, but probably for all the wrong reasons. Its uncomfortable theme of a female living torso kept as the trophy of an obsessively demented male doctor already has feminists foaming at the mouth.

But that’s not the reason this movie should be dismissed. The real reason is: ″Boxing Helena″ is a bad film - with terrible acting, cliched dialogue, a silly script, pedestrian camera work and inferior direction.

Much of the blame must be placed with director Jennifer Chambers Lynch, who also wrote the screenplay, and with those who decided to give her the money to make this movie - the producers, Carl Mazzocone and Philippe Caland (who’s responsible for the story), and executive producers James R. Schaeffer and Larry Sugar.

There’s little substance here and little focus. The movie lacks the sophistication or cleverness to be a satire or even high camp. It lacks the profound vision to be absurdist or existential. And as a thriller, it plods along like a tired old elephant.

The movie opens when Dr. Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) is a child attending a party given by his parents and largely ignored, indeed scowled upon. During this Freudian slip of a scene, Lynch has the soundtrack play Cab Calloway’s rendition of ″You’re Nobody ’Til Somebody Loves You.″

Seque to the present: Mom is dead, Nick is a famed surgeon.

He sees a woman named Helena (Sherilyn Fenn) in a crowded club and goes bananas. It seems Nick had a one-night stand with Helena and became obsessed with her alleged beauty.

He drifts about like a lovesick puppy, even playing peeping Tom one night while jogging. He must see her again, and throws a party with her as the intended guest of honor. This doesn’t set too well with his current paramour, the long-suffering Anne (Betsy Clark). And Helena couldn’t care less.

She doffs her dress at the party and swishes about in the outdoor fountain while Lynch’s camera does a series of slo-mo wet shots. You can almost hear the voice-over for a diet soda.

Helena leaves her address book at the party and asks Nick to return it to her the next day. He shows up without it, and coerces her to join him for lunch at his house. She grabs her address book and leaves, backing into the street in time to be hit by a car.

Here’s where Lynch asks for major - but major - suspension of disbelief: Nick amputates Helena’s legs and keeps her prisoner in his home while he ″nurses″ her back to health.

They go through major love-hate sessions - love on his side, hate on hers. He amputates her arms to make her even more dependent. He has a few fantasies about love-making.

Helena’s ex-lover, Ray O’Malley (Bill Paxton), tries to rescue her. There’s a fight and Nick wakes up as if from a bad dream at the hospital where Helena has undergone surgery and is alive with both arms and legs intact.

Dispersed throughout we must cope with Paxton’s swaggering bravado, which was simply silly and bordered on campy, and odd touches from Lynch such as Nick’s constant change of shirts. He also wears cotton in one of his ears, only the continuity is so sloppy, the cotton appears and disappears in the same scene. These are distractions at best.

We also must cope with Fenn, an actress of little talent who delivers all lines, whether screaming, carping or cooing, in the same flat voice.

There are constant camera plays on a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo, as if Lynch wishes to tell us that Nick is obsessed with classic beauty. However, Fenn is not a classic beauty. And her character is not a nice person; there’s no inner beauty.

Sands is way over the top, playing Nick as a sniveling idiot. It’s hard to think why any woman would desire this guy, and it’s easy to see why Helena treats him with such contempt.

″Boxing Helena″ is Lynch’s directorial debut. She’s made many of the mistakes of first-time filmmakers, especially in not knowing how or when to end her movie and finally settling on a cop-out. It’s hoped that she’ll learn from this one and perhaps go on to something better.

The Main Line Pictures production is an Orion Classics release. Rated R.

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Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G - General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.

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