Caging Libertine

Jennifer Chambers Lynch, 1993

Nick: You're everything to me.
Helena: You're nothing to me.

Boxing Helena is what happens when Fatal Attraction makes love with Misery. After seeing the greatest f*ck of his life once again, brilliant surgeon Dr. Nick Cavanaugh (Julian Sands) decides to leave everything behind: his career, his girlfriend, his sanity, his everything – all just to be with Helena (a stunning Sherilyn Fenn), the woman of his wet dreams. Helena is everything to Nick, just as much as Nick is nothing to Helena.

To be closer to Helena, Nick moves in to the house he inherited from his recently deceased mother. And so he feeds his obsession by stalking Helena from his car, from the tree, from every corner of his timid existence.

Nick later invites Helena to his house party, to which Helena obliges. After leaving her purse, Helena is forced to go back to Nick's house. A terrible accident would later leave Helena at the hands of Nick's mercy (and obsession), making her a captive in Nick's mansion.

Boxing Helena is very much like Helena the character. Helena is essentially a libertine and a drifter, the kind so aloof no one can ever have her for themselves. Such personality is what attracted Nick to Helena. He knows he can't have her, so he wants her that bad. (Even though they only had a one-night stand.)

Venus de Milo, mother, and Helena – these three women would play a vital role to Nick's manhood.

Venus (a.k.a. Greeks' Aphrodite) is the Roman goddess of love, beauty, sex, and desire – all of which serve as Nick's prison cells.

As a child, Nick was both tormented and incestuously fascinated by his mother, a promiscuous married woman who would have sex with various men even when the boy is just around.

And of course, Helena is Nick's world, the very reason for his existence. His validation of manhood relies solely on his performance in bed. It sounds pathetic, but yes, Nick thinks he is nothing without Helena's approval. As Helena chases liberty, Nick keeps on caging the libertine that is Helena – hence the intercut of a frantic caged bird as an abducted Helena throws things at Nick and cries for freedom. His world revolves around her that he later positions a completely amputated Helena amidst a bounty of flowers, objectifying the woman and worshiping her just like a saint or a God.

Helena's name is derived from Helen of Troy, Greek mythology's most beautiful woman, whose abduction by the Trojan prince ignited the Trojan war. In this film, another war can be seen: Nick's battle with fantasy and reality.

As David Lynch's daughter, Miss Chambers Lynch infuses a few elements from her father's Blue Velvet. With sex as one of the film's main themes, voyeurism is also utilized as an instrument for character analysis. Jeffrey from Blue Velvet was a voyeur in one of the film's iconic scenes, watching a masochist Isabella Rossellini from inside a closet.

In Boxing Helena, we see both of the main characters acting as voyeurs. In one scene, Nick is perched on a tree, watching Helena getting it on with a boytoy (Bill Paxton with Jim Morrison hairdo). In two scenes, an amputated Helena was forced to be a voyeur as Nick conceals her from the women he has sex with inside the house. Boxing Helena's voyeurism aspect aims to reveal more about Nick rather than Helena, putting Nick in the spotlight to be understood. And of course, we – the audience – also act as voyeurs to these two sexually preoccupied characters. The film somehow shares the same atmosphere with Atom Egoyan's Exotica and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

Boxing Helena received quite a lot of backlash, calling the film "misogynistic and anti-male," therefore igniting a gender war. I guess it's all up to the audience to call whatever they like. Personally, I think women are objectified in this film, suggesting that women are all about sex. That's Miss Chambers Lynch's viewpoint, I guess.

The film somewhat romanticizes the creepy notion of obsession, presenting Nick as the lovestruck version of Alex Forrest and Annie Wilkes. Call him romantic, but Nick definitely has some psychological and emotional dependency issues. But that doesn't mean he is the bad guy as the film doesn't portray him as such. Instead, Chambers Lynch affectionately portrays him as a tortured, fearful boy inside an adult man's body, allowing audience to delve deeper into the roots of his being.

Sands and Miss Fenn share an impressive chemistry, which serves as one of the film's upsides. Mostly regarded as a character actor, Julian Sands is a perfect fit as the film's male protagonist. The actor's little-boy-in-a-big-guy's-body persona complements Nick's obsessive, longing-for-mother personality.

Two years after her success as Audrey Horne in Twin Peaks, Miss Fenn is simply ravishing as Helena. (Kim Basinger was reportedly the first choice for Helena, but is said to have backed out later.) As the mysterious title character, Fenn gives one of her career's best performances. With a striking beauty reminiscent of classic Hollywood actresses like Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor, Fenn commands the screen just as much as Helena commands Nick. Definitely one of the overlooked actresses of the '90s. (FYI: Fenn actually played Liz Taylor in a TV movie.)

The film demands some restoration. The shots are mostly impressive, specifically the wide shot of Nick at the door, watching Helena and Russell leave the party. The cinematography's sharpness is waning, probably because of the film used. So yeah. Something like The Criterion Collection should definitely give this movie some facelift.

Boxing Helena's soundtrack includes songs such as You're Nobody Until Somebody Loves You by Cab Calloway, Lenny Kravitz's It Ain't Over 'til It's Over, Woman in Chains by Tears for Fears (a stark contrast to Helena's lifestyle), and Sadeness: Part I by Enigma. The song during the end credits kinda ruined it for me though. You had this surrealist movie, then you switch to some cheesy guy whining in the background. Yeesh.

Boxing Helena has the male gaze. It attempts to explore the complexities of women from the viewpoint of Nick. Helena remains an enigma as there is no backstory that would explain her mystery – we don't know anything about her family, her occupation, her hopes, her dreams. She's just... Helena, the woman.

Women are a beautiful myriad of mysteries – this is what Miss Chambers Lynch tries to employ in the film's storyline. And women's irascibility and mystery are just some of the countless things that make them fascinating.

A woman is something soft; something warm when you feel her. When she's naked. When she's touched. Discovered. You see that things happen inside of her. She opens up. Sometimes a woman is sad. Sometimes she's angry. Helpless. Beautiful. Sometimes she's strong. She's still only that one woman. Talk to her – in deep whispers. Tell her what you're doing, what you see. Move slowly. Tell her you're inside of her. Tell her how it feels. Touch her. Use your tongue. Your breath. When she's about to come, she'll grab for you. But don't let her come. Make her wait. Tease her. Play with her. Make her feel. She may touch herself. She's so sensitive now. You can't be afraid. Take her. Take her.

- Helena

Accentuated by Venus de Milo as a metaphor, Boxing Helena is an intriguing work of art, although the film is not for everyone, not for those looking for clear-cut answers to simple questions. It is kinda like a dream, and most dreams are not easy to tell.

Trailer for Boxing Helena:

DISCLAIMER: No copyright infringement intended. I don't own or claim to own any of the photos used.

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