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MOVIES : Shadow Boxing : 'Helena' director fears that with the heavily publicized baggage about Madonna and Kim Basinger accompanying the film, practically no one will see without prejudice the movie she, David Lynch's daughter, made

August 29, 1993|STEVE WEINSTEIN | Steve Weinstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

It should have been a small art film that became either the darling of film festival junkies and heralded the arrival of a fresh young talent or just another failed first film that flops alongside hundreds of others.

But then, like an experiment with prehistoric DNA, things got a little out of control.

First, the one-line high concept--a man is so obsessed with a beautiful woman that he hacks off her arms and legs and keeps her forever in a box--was just too deliciously demented to keep Hollywood and the press from talking about the merits and insanity of pursuing such an idea. And better still, it came from the daughter of one of Hollywood's weirdest star directors.

Then, one of the world's bona fide mega-celebrities was cast as the woman with no arms or legs. But Madonna got cold limbs. So the filmmakers quickly turned to another international star, Kim Basinger, and the production was ready to shoot. But Basinger too changed her mind, prompting an unprecedented Hollywood trial that ended in a jury ordering Basinger to pay the film's producer nearly $9 million for fraudulently and maliciously breaking her commitment to appear in the film.

Through all of that and the six years since she first sat down to write her twisted love story, Jennifer Chambers Lynch, now 25, persevered, and "Boxing Helena," opening here Friday, is about to be unleashed on the public. The only problem, the bright and articulate daughter of David Lynch laments, is that with all the hyper-publicized baggage that accompanies the film, practically no one will be able to see without prejudice the movie she made.

"I'm not going to say this is a film without flaws," Lynch said in a recent interview at her rented home in the Hollywood hills. "But this was just supposed to be a little low-budget movie. Right now I have to let go of it and send the child off to school, where it will either be bullied by the bullies or make friends. But all the kids in this case have been told that a new kid is coming to school in the middle of the year and he's retarded. And even if my kid only had a bent finger, he will forever be seen as the retarded kid.

"That's the perception, and I think it's almost impossible for most people to go to see the film without that. It'll be them thinking, what would the film look like with Madonna or with Kim? Jennifer Lynch is David Lynch's daughter--is it weird like him? I wish no one knew."

Whether it's prejudice or simply a matter of mediocre movie making, many critics already have reviled "Boxing Helena," which stars Sherilyn Fenn in the role Madonna and Basinger shunned and Julian Sands--Ed Harris had previously been attached to the role--as the obsessed lover. The film was poorly received when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last January, and in England, many male critics have savaged Lynch and her film for accusing Englishmen--Sands is British--of being sexually inept. Other critics have lambasted the ending, saying it smacks of a typical, tacked-on Hollywood cop-out, but which Lynch insists she conceived from Day 1.

The film has also been the target of women's groups, who have protested what they perceive as a blatant and dangerous portrayal of violence against women. In London, where the film has already opened, women who had not seen the movie, Lynch said, picketed outside the theater. In this country, some women have already voiced their displeasure with the movie's premise.

"It doesn't surprise me that there is this reaction to it, but what surprises me is that only about 20% of the women who see the film still feel that way," Lynch said. "The rest go, right on, and understand it as a metaphor. Her self esteem is her body, her beauty, and he's taking that away. This is what women go through. If you go to the movie with the intention of seeing something misogynistic and pornographic, you can find images of that, but that's not what it's about. I mean I can find sexism and misogyny in wedding vows if I look hard enough."

Lynch explains that when she was presented the one-line idea by one of the film's producers, Philippe Caland, she resisted his inclination to focus on the violently erotic elements of the concept. Instead she wanted to tell the story as a fairy tale.

Lynch said that her grandmother had a replica of the Venus de Milo in her house, and while growing up, she always noticed that people would stop and look at the statue, not as something flawed and broken, but as something beautiful. Using that as her guide, she persuaded Caland to let her write a script exploring the kind of violence couples inflict when they attempt to change one another in an effort to feel safer, in an effort to ensure that the beloved will never ever leave.

"Horror fans will be terribly disappointed because there isn't much blood or violence," Lynch observed.

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