That Time David Lynch’s Daughter Made 'the Most Ridiculous Film Ever'

Why did Jennifer Lynch get panned for the same weird opulence that makes her dad a genius?
May 30, 2017, 12:53am

It was 1993, and the American critical establishment was excitedly awaiting the release of a new film from a Lynch. Not David Lynch, but his daughter, Jennifer. The movie was Boxing Helena, a soupy romantic horror that charted the relationship between an obsessed surgeon and a woman, Helena, who he traps in his home by amputating each of her limbs. In the film, Helena was even played by Twin Peaks' very own Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) after both Madonna and Kim Basinger pulled out.


The excitement around Boxing Helena didn't last long. Upon release, it was publically, unforgivingly eviscerated. The film was treated to one of those critical bloodbaths so brutal the bad reviews ended up getting more coverage than the film itself. Critics called it everything from "grotesquely misconceived" to "stupefyingly bad." Moviehole's Clint Morris even went so far as to dramatically call it "the most ridiculous film a critic has had to sit through." Within a few weeks it became a joke—the kind of infamous stinker people use as shorthand for everything they hate about Hollywood.

Sherilyn Fenn in Boxing Helena

But why? Why was Lynch the younger so brutalised for doing exactly what her father had built a career on? After all, despite critics openly suggesting Lynch was a disappointment to her dad—one writer has even recently suggested that the two get a DNA test—there's not as much separating the two as the muckrakers might think.

Just compare the first four episodes of Twin Peaks' new season with Boxing Helena. Both are works driven by deliberately, defiantly spurious plots— Twin Peaks by an oblique story concerning a clear plastic cube, Boxing Helena by Dr Nick's fatalist affections and the carnage they eventually wreak. Both stories are frustrating in their fogginess, particularly Helena, a movie that dares to end with a "twist" that would get most first year creative writing student a failing grade. But who cares? Clearly, for both Lynches, a narrative is just a hat rack; a structure to drape your real fun across.

That's not all, either. Both works are packed with ham, full of the kind of deliciously jilted, awkward performances that tend to inspire the respect of bad movie hounds and widespread ridicule in equal measure. In a dual role as Evil and Good Cop, Kyle MacLachlan approaches Twin Peaks' most ridiculous lines ("Oh, you're nice and wet!") with an unashamed sense of silliness. Julian Sands' Pepsi-swilling, long blonde hair-flicking turn as the obsessed Dr Nick Cavanaugh in Helena exists in the same world—owing as much to soap opera as it does to Shakespeare.

And, perhaps most importantly, both works are unashamedly, unreservedly ludicrous. Often in exactly the same way. What with its murderous, schlocky spirits, floating faces, non-naturalistic green screen work, and B-grade gore, Twin Peaks coats horror tropes with a layer of kitsch. It comes across like an unholy hybrid of Francis Bacon and The Bold And The Beautiful. This also happens to be a neat way of explaining Helena, a film that alternates between scenes of toe-curling barbarism and the world's most amusingly pulpy romance.

So what gives? Why isn't Jennifer Lynch the one being received at the Cannes like a conquering hero—her janky, souped up style lauded as the future of American cinema? Why isn't Boxing Helena the favourite film of art school bores across the country; the kind of poured over classic that fans are willing to dedicate their entire goddamn lives to?

There are questions of gender, but also of intent. Few critics afforded Chambers Lynch the goodwill they'd long given her father. No one could believe she'd deliberately produced such a sloppy, overcranked film. Sure there may have been critics pushing back against nepotism—wanting to attack someone who was born with a creative silver spoon in their mouth. And maybe some of it came down to sexism, too. But part of the problem also undoubtedly lay in Chambers Lynch's unwillingness to be the auteur everyone forced her father into being.

Everyone wanted Chambers Lynch to come out and explain her authorial intent, to "unpack" the kitsch and the cruelty in her work. But she simply never did. Instead, in an interview the Los Angeles Times, she railed against those who had so criticised her. "Believe me, there have been points, even a month ago, where I was so disillusioned with this whole scene that I thought I would never do anything like this again," she told the Times' reporter.

Basically, Chambers Lynch broke the rules. Something which, hypocritically, her father has gotten away with doing for almost his whole career. Lynch Sr has long done pretty much whatever he wants, protected by his audience's expectations: he goes where his whims take him and we follow, convinced he is in on the joke. Surely he meant that robin at the culmination of Blue Velvet to look so damn fake. Surely Wild At Heart's tackily out-of-the blue happy ending is meant to be a little reductive, like some kind of ironic comment on the unsustainability of long-term relationships.

The Twin Peaks bird

That all might be true. But it also might not. Either way, the question we should be asking is not "What do filmmakers mean?" but simply, "Who gives a shit?" After all, cinema isn't some big, complicated game. A great mystery that only the intellectually blessed can bluster their way to the heart of. There is no right answer to a Lynch film, no single correct take, and over-emphasising the aims of the author is only a method the entitled use to claim dominance over the casual lover of art. Such an approach doesn't make movies better. It just makes them work. And who wants to go to the cinema for that?

Pretending that such a distinction does exist—convincing yourself Twin Peaks is somehow better than Boxing Helena; somehow classier—is simply a way of favouring one kind of film over another. Ultimately, it's nothing more than a bias in favour of films that resemble fact-packed theses, rather than works created without thought: a way of denying the essential idea that art can be produced as naturally as an exhale.

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