Jennifer Chambers Lynch’s debut feature Boxing Helena (1993) has never been a popular film. It has found some longevity among the fans of her father’s films, but has, for all purposes, drifted into obscurity in the wake of poor reviews that followed it’s winning of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1993. For the most part, the critics who publicly lashed Boxing Helena in 1993 did have a few valid points.
For instance, it has widely been agreed upon that the film is too dependent on the shocking nature of Dr. Cavanaugh’s (Julian Sands) amputation of Helena’s (Sherilyn Fenn) limbs as a means to control and manipulate her; making her his own Venus Di Milo. The sexual nature of this violence and of the relationship between these two characters is, in how the film is paced, made gratuitous, laboring a point that was more than evident at the beginning of the amputation scene.
What merits a reevaluation of Boxing Helena is its approach to feminism. Lynch doesn’t follow the rule of feminist film by constructing a visual codification around a female signifier who is designed to engage in the subversion of the masculine gaze. In fact, Lynch does just the opposite, employing the masculine gaze and equating it with violence. She creates her scenes from the perspective of the sexually obsessive Cavanaugh, lighting and choreographing Helena’s love scenes with her boyfriend (Bill Paxton) in a manner instantly recognizable as the soft-core aesthetic of Zalman King. These subjective POV love scenes are the epitome of the male gaze, heightened to the point that the image becomes ridiculous and utterly absurd in its villainy. Cavanaugh’s view of the world, as illustrated by Lynch’s camera, enables the feminist demographic to see and recognize this worldview as a perverse approximation of our own male dominated society.
The motif of Cavanaugh’s voyeurism is persistent in demonstrating how the masculine demographic perceives the female form as a vehicle for sexual gratification. In turn, Boxing Helena is more concerned with how masculine audiences view women in film than with the superficial cautionary tale of sadistic chauvinism acted upon; an interpretation that remains prevalent today.
Admittedly, Lynch’s inversion of the feminist film aesthetic is just a subtext in Boxing Helena. I myself had to view the film twice before detecting what Lynch’s primary concerns were. What detracted from the film in the minds of critics in 1993 is exactly what makes any sub textual reading so difficult; the gratuitous nature of Lynch’s depictions of violence and sexuality.