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Taking The Lid Off Helena

by J.

The story is simple, one line scribbled. perhaps, on the back of a menu or of an envelope: a woman limbless in a box, and not limbless through accident or illness, mutilated to limblessness.

The writer is commissioned to construct the fiction that brings into existence the imagined world where, inevitable as the turning of the seasons, an imagined woman in imagined circumstances is driven, drawn to the imagined fate. The idea, the theme, the fantasy, the dream, the inspiration that became Boxing Helena was proposed by Philippe Caland, a financier, who was searching for a female writer to realise his idea about a man who dismembers a woman and keeps her in a box.

Jennifer Chambers Lynch, the daughter of David Lynch - How infuriating at the age of 24 still to be known as the daughter of somebody - was the writer commissioned to realise this fiction, in screenplay and in film. Why Jennifer Lynch? Had she a reputation as a novelist? No. She had written one novel, a trivial piece of exploitation derived from her work with the distinguished director David Lynch on the television serial Twin Peaks; but then at 24 she could hardly be expected to have established a reputation as a novelist, especially as the title of the novel was The secret diary of Laura Palmer.

Had she a reputation as a screen writer or as a film director? Well, she had been present on occasions when her father - whoops! - when the distinguished film director David Lynch had been making such films as Dune and Blue Velvet. Family predilections might have a part to play in her selection as a director. David Lynch, from Eraserhead, via The Elephant Man, to Dune, has shown a willingness to peer at, even, some would argue to dwell voyeuristically on scrutinising the extremes, and even beyond the extremes, of human variability. Another reason that might have predisposed her to take an interest in the project is that she has, herself, had the experience of being physically unusual, having been born with club-feet, and having lived through childhood with the prolonged orthoædic treatment necessary to eradicate the deformities, and having experienced the casual cruelties that able-bodied society inflicts on physically impaired people.

'I used to look at my grandmother's Venus de Milo statue and think that less was just as beautiful.' she said in an interview on one occasion. And talking about the paintings of Frida Kahlo she said 'Her paintings of her own injuries and wounds and the impenetrable self-hatred that she made into something beautiful was something that I could relate to.' Another reason is that she had the opportunity to write the screenplay, and another reason is that she is a woman. Uproar might have been provoked by her story and her film, but if the story had been written by a man, the uproar would have been much more clamourous. 'Though the idea intrigued me,' she said, 'I also thought "How dare you want to hire a woman to do something like this just because it would be easier and cooler for people to handle?" ' Referring to Caland she also said 'The story that I have written is not what he would have written and not what he intended me to write.'

The surface theme of the film is sexuality and control. There is, in fact, only contingent interest for the devotee. There is no sense in the film that in amputating Helena's limbs, the protagonist, as well as taking control, is transforming her into an even more potent sexual idol than she was before. The amputation of the limbs is merely the equivalent of '.Ü.Ü.Ükept her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well'.

The world in which the story unfolds is a remote to us as the château at Roissy, where O experiences the reality of the meaninglessness of self. There are parallels between O's experiences, and Helena's. Both experience the ultimate freedom of perfect submission, where, in O's case all volition is extirpated, and she becomes nothing more than the empty channel, clear, pure, innocent beyond innocence, zen in the art of polymorphous sexual perversity, through which driven and tortured men seek their release indulging whatever sexual desire obsesses them. In Helena's case, rendered incapable of expressing her contrary will through action she becomes at first resigned to helplessness and then to rejoice in it.

The making of the film took a long time and was disrupted by a series of problems with actresses. Madonna withdrew from the rôle of Helena, and she was replaced by Kim Basinger, and Kim Basinger withdrew only four weeks before shooting was scheduled to start, breaking an oral agreement to act the part of Helena, was sued, lost the case and has been ordered to pay $7.4 million dollars in general damages and $1.5 million for the loss of her services as an actress. An irony in the case is that the film itself has not done good business taking only $2.7 million on its first release. Super publicity for the film, but it has bankrupted Ms Basinger who nevertheless has taken the case to appeal in the hope of reducing the damages she is required to pay.

The reason for Ms Basinger's withdrawal from the rôle is difficult to determine. It may be that she got cold feet about taking the part of a woman who is an amputee in a film of very dubious taste. (Of course we know that good taste is the enemy of true art; but you can't expect a Hollywood bimbo to know that. And it is true that bad taste alone doesn't guarantee good art.)

In the rôle she played in court, a serious actress defending her artistic intrgrity, Ms Basinger wore no make-up, a trouser suit, and seemed to have a cold. Her defence was that while she was prepared to be filmed in the nude if it was artistically justifiable, she would not take part in scenes which were nothing more than gratuitous titillation. In the course of her cross-examination she admitted 'Unfortunately it is true that the more flesh you show, the further up the ladder you go.' Unkind critics have not forgotten that she appeared to be relatively uninhibited in 9 weeks, a work of art that did not exactly displace Romeo and Juliet from its pre-eminence in the canon. Nor have they forgotten that Ms Basinger appeared as the model in the centre-fold of Playboy in 1983. Consequently Ms Basinger's defence appears to them to be evidence of an alarming experience on the Damascus road, or alternatively, a disingenuous subterfuge that distracts attention from the real reason for her withdrawal.

Ms Basinger was 39 when the case was heard. The part she was contracted to play was of a woman reduced to a torso. The torso of a woman of 39 is not the same as the torso of a woman of 19 or 29, not better, not worse, but different, beginning to replace the insolent turgor of youth with a softer, more yielding contour. Ms Basinger has long and beautiful legs. Her agent said that he had told Ms Basinger 'You've got the greatest legs in the world. Why do you want to have them cut off?'

Unless the damages are greatly reduced on appeal the producer stands to make much more from suing Ms Basinger than he does from making the film. Responding to the verdict Carl Mazzocone, the President of Mail Line, the company that made the film, said 'I think it will alert actors and actresses that when they commit, they commit. If you are going to read the script, meet the director and say "I'm doing your movie" then you have to show up for work when the movie's ready to shoot...'

Speaking about the film which is essentially a two-hander, with much talk and not much action - well, there couldn't really be a lot of action for Helena, could there? - Jennifer Lynch said 'I wanted it to be a very small film. I wanted it to a little, tiny jewel in a little, tiny box. I had no intention of it being this big blockbuster.' With that sort of a grip on conversational prose it is not surprising that much of the dialogue she has written has a stilted quality. Of course with an unknown like Madonna playing the female lead, the film, as it was originally conceived, would have been unnoticed on its release. The theme of the film is also commonplace and unremarkable and it could reasonably have been expected that it would attract no notice at all from moralists or feminists.

The role of Helena is played by Sherilyn Fenn, a woman still marked by that peculiar family patina of grease so skilfully spread over the company by David Lynch in Twin Peaks. A beautiful woman, she appears gross and coarse, with dark eyeshadow and pencilled brows. (A subtle piece of make-up this, serving to make the surgeon seem all the madder because no-one in his right mind would fancy such a gaudy trollop.) She is not called upon to act, although it is possible to imagine that her character could have a coherent psyche that really does inform her actions.

The surgeon, Julian Sands, looks like no surgeon ever seen before, with corner-boy long blond hair and Italian 'designer' clothes. Advertising agent, yes, stock-and-share broker, yes, media-executive, yes; but surgeon, no. Does this matter? Yes and no. We are not in a world where people really have jobs and motivations. We are in the world of Roissy, where the château is maintained without funds, where, except for the valets in the château itself none of the men works - though the women do, as photographers, and models, and servants, they either become or create the women in forms that the men favour. We are in a world without inconveniences, where none of the women menstruates or becomes pregnant or catches syphilis, or even thrush.

The man is a surgeon because he has to be able to conduct the surgery himself. He isn't a real surgeon, he is the deus ex machina that enables the dominant man to dominate the chosen woman physically. He also has to be a weakling, and incapable of solving problems of dominance by the traditional Hollywood technique of knocking the woman around a bit - No, really, they like it - or by the Rhett Butler solution to marital problems of giving Scarlett a jolly good seeing to whether she likes it or not, because, though she can't admit it to herself, she's really choking for it. Instead, because he's a surgeon, and a weakling, and an intellectual, he expresses his machismo by chopping Helena's limbs off. At least it's a one-off, or rather a four-off, solution. So we should be swept away by the pretty filming of pleasing bodies, the idea of being the boss. So why is there all the feeble psychological motivation for the surgeon. And even more to the point why is it all wrong?

That the behaviour of the surgeon is inconsistent has irritated at least one critic. Though why it should is a mystery: people do not always act consistently, and someone who is disposed to lop off someone else's legs is unlikely to adhere too closely to the norm. At the same time, because of the relinquishing of realism we are in the world of Alice, where nothing can really surprise us because the world's underlying logic is suspended and events succeed each other as disconnected scenes rather than as the inevitable consequences of antecedent conditions.

So is it a good film or not? For those of us who find amputees attractive, the quadruple amputee is the limit. The torso, simplified, sexual, and powerless is exciting in itself. For that reason a devotee might find the film more stimulating by its subject alone than other people. We are watching a Hollywood sex-and-freak show. If we admit to ourselves that that is what we are doing the question arises: Is it an effective sex-and-freak show?

To answer this question I believe that we could compare Boxing Helena with a much more self-conscious exploration of this area, The elephant man made by David Lynch a long time ago. This film deals with the rescue and rehabilitation of John (or perhaps Joseph) Merrill, a man horrifyingly and pitifully afflicted by neurofibromatosis, von Recklingshausen's syndrome. This really is a small film, made in black and white, starring Anthony Hopkins as Frederick Treves, and John Hurt as John Merrill. This film has the advantage of a stock of real actors, oustanding among whom is the late Freddie Jones, but John Gielgud and Anne Bancroft play important rôles. The film is a simple story about Treves's encounter with Merrill the freak. Is Treves a devotee? It is hard to tell. In a wonderful scene Treves is shown searching, secure in the armour of his social class, but apprehensive for all that, through a series of tents or canvas-walled corridors in the vicinity of the freak show. He searches out Merrill and encounters his owner, keeper, lover? played with astounding assurance by Freddie Jones, a man belonging to the same class as Treves but living in the gutter, a man with a taste for freaks, 'If you are interested in this kind of material I can get you anything, anything at all... ' he says to Treves knowingly, recognizing another aficionado.

As soon as he is able to Treves exhibits Merrill to a meeting of other doctors, in conditions which may be cleaner but which are as much an affront to his dignity as his appearance at the freak show from which he was abstracted. Treves establishes Merrill in a spare room near the bell-tower of the hospital in which he works. The 'owner' tries to get Merrill back, and the search of the labyrinth is repeated, this time through the corridors of the hospital, but he is caught before he can find his minotaur, and is ordered off the premises, he leaves, moist-eyed, tattered, and bowed, but still dignified.

Merrill gets taken up by an actress, played by Anne Bancroft, and he appears in society. In the end his aspiration to be normal leads him to try to sleep in a bed like an ordinary person and he suffocates. The film is about devoteeism, and it is about voyeurism. Treves and the keeper are social opposites, but they move through their environment, the one a labyrinth of canvas, the other a labyrinth of hospital corridors, in pursuit of the same thing, the freak. People are portrayed being titillated by the sight of the freak, and we in our turn, if we think about it, are titillated by the sight of the freak and by the sight of other people being titillated by the sight of the freak.

The film is a jewel of perversity and within the film events echo and re-echo not only among the characters portrayed but among the characters and the audience which participates in its own form of voyeurism. Of the mannerisms of the director a few stand out which will be repeated with variations in his later work. The representation of Merrill's birth is a series of still photographs of the woman in labour the turning and struggling represented by shot after shot, perhaps separate frames from a continuous film, separated so the the outline of the woman's movements are preserved. Differentially amplified sounds of beating hearts emphasise moments of tension. Action out of doors takes place in cobbled streets, rain-wet, catching lamplight obliquely, reflecting spangles of ligtht. Smoke and vapour establish aerial perspective in the scenes out of doors. Slow motion emphasises important events and in the most important sound is amplified, and frames are stolen, leaving perhaps every fifth frame projected five times. Perhaps it is not coincidental that some of these stylistic mannerisms also appear in Boxing Helena.

Despite the lavishness of the production there is no resonance in Boxing Helena. What is worse is that the ending is a major cheat. We know without having to be told that we are watching a dream: the very lack of internal logic is enough to persuade us of that, to be told that we are watching a dream of a dream is a pleonastic blunder. So what are we left with? Prettily filmed soap advertisment opulence. Much oblique lighting on firm young flesh naked, and very nice it is, flat acting in implausible circumstances, and a succulently perverse idea thrown away.

The content of the story is a close parallel to The collector, a novel by John Fowles, filmed in the '60's with Terence Stamp as the kidnapping male and Samantha Eggar as the victim with whom he is infatuated. The girl is kidnapped and held in secret, and there is an exploration of the sexuality of physical dominance (his) and social, intellectual, and sexual dominance (hers), and in the end the girl gets away, just as Helena does. It is clear, then that the amputations are not essential to the drama, the implications of which were handled with much greater assurance by Fowles without the need to mutilate his heroine. I therefore suggest that the story is simply a pretext for presenting pure devoteeism. The real story is of a surgeon devotee mutilating a woman, not in pursuit of power, but simply to convert her body into a form that was even more sexually desirable, the gain in power being merely a contingent effect of the mutilation. I further suspect that the story that was chosen, with its disgusting implications about male sexuality and power, was chosen because the film makers believed that it would be more acceptable than a love story where the victim perhaps welcomed the amputations or even sought them out.

Notes and references

Boxing Helena
Details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database..
...the château at Roissy,...
Story of O (Histoire d'O)
Pauline Réage, (1972)
Corgi Books, Transworld Publishers Ltd, London,UK
The elephant man
Details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database..
The collector
John Fowles (1963)
Jonathon Cape, London
Details of the film can be found on the Internet Movie Database..
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