David Lynch’s Eraserhead apparently grew out of a real life experience of becoming a father when he wasn’t ready. The child he wasn’t ready for was Jennifer Chambers Lynch, and her debut as a writer-director was Boxing Helena... and it really can be read as an answer to Eraserhead, sharing a similar thematic situation at the center of the story: in both cases, one being is utterly dependent on another for basic care and survival. And sure enough, the former is set up so the audience identifies with the caretaker, and the latter gives voice to the caretakee.
Eraserhead launched a long and artistically very successful career. But Boxing Helena led to Jennifer Lynch coming nowhere near a director’s chair again for fifteen years... until this year in fact, working on the forthcoming ghost story Surveillance. What went wrong?
Lots of people are all too eager to tell us what went wrong with this movie:
“Stupefyingly bad. Amazingly bad. Alarmingly bad.” — Ken Hanke
A lot of people have said things like this... but it turns out it’s not so.
“The film is superficial and silly” — Chris Hicks
No, not really.
“Boring” — Joe Brown
Definitely can’t agree there.
“Mean-spirited, pretentious, ludicrous” — Jason MacIsaac (jabootu)
“Blatantly misogynistic” — Rumsey Taylor
I don’t think that’s what’s really going on here.
“The cop-out finale is a film school cliche” — John Hartl
Wro— no wait, actually that one’s true.
Anyway, this is not any simple, straightforward bad movie. Indelicate and heavy-handed as it is, there are some considerable smarts and subtlety at work in it. There is no lack of filmmaking skill in most scenes. But...
The content is certainly ex-treeeme. And, its original edit got an NC17 rating until they cut some bits. And here’s one solid reason why this film destructed Jennifer Lynch’s career: because she created it in a form even more disreputable than no-budget black&white indie surrealism... it’s framed as an erotic thriller.
At least, the beginning and some bits near the end are. The middle contains no erotic material at all. And this shift may well have helped piss off audiences... perhaps in a quite intentional way.
The lead female role of Helena, the one tasked with putting in the erotic thrill, went to Sherilynn Fenn, after Madonna had to back out to do Evita, and Kim Basinger fled in horror (and got sued for it). Her performance is adequate, but... not all it could have been.
But she’s not overtly the protagonist: in that spot we focus on Nicholas Cavanaugh, surgeon, played persuasively by Julian Sands. (Whose brit accent is never explained.) We are introduced by way of his privileged childhood, in which some reasons why he Has Issues are made abundantly clear with just a few gestures and icy looks from his cold, distant, and yet skanky parents. As the film continues it sinks in that his problems go beyond mere Issues and may amount to a serious mental illness. He has a girlfriend, yet he is utterly, compulsively obsessed with Helena, who is well-to-do but shows no signs of having any class. He stalks her, he pesters her, he throws a party just to invite her (dig the foreshadowing as she sheds consecutive pieces of her ensemble — shawl, purse, etc), and finally maneuvers her into coming to his house against her will... which leads her to stomp out in a fury... and get hit by a car.
At which point, Dr. Nick decides he is “forced” to amputate. And to “take care” of her... by holding her captive.
The center of the film consists of a contest of wills between the furious but helpless captive and the merciless and utterly self-deluded captor who swears he loves his victim. And at the end of this contest — and this is where the charge of misogyny comes in — Helena loses. She has to. Combative and strong-willed as she is, it’s only a matter of time.
We all love stories in which an indominable survivor never stops fighting back and finally triumphs over the bad guy who tried to break his spirit... but the thing is, the reason we love this so much in fiction is that, really, this is not how it generally works in real life. Victimized people do break down. There is only a finite amount of abuse and helplessness that a given person can take before the integrity that allows them to fight for themselves comes apart. Stockholm syndrome is real and not at all rare. That’s a fact of life, and one that a great many people are very reluctant to acknowledge. Most people, especially Americans I think, would very much like to believe that it could never happen to them.
That’s another big reason, I’d bet, why so many people hate this movie. Under its far-fetched gothic excess there lies a bit of mirror aimed back in a very unattractive direction.
From here the film builds up to a conclusion... and in one area the critics are right, Jennifer Lynch blew it in trying to find an ending.
No matter how much I defend this movie, I certainly can’t claim it’s any masterpiece. It has several obvious flaws, it bludgeons its audience with symbolism, and it very much lacks artistic maturity. But nevertheless, it is something far richer and more interesting than the disaster of bumbling incompetence that many critics would have you believe it is.
So why did this film kill off Jennifer Lynch’s directing career? In the end, I believe it all comes down to one single mistake: she took studio money. If she’d made it as a cheap indie, it could have found some sort of audience and she could certainly have gone on to bigger and (undoubtedly) better things. But instead, she was stuck with the job of recouping a studio investment, and this story, no matter how much you front-load it with steamy softcore, just can’t be turned into something commercial.
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