Daughters of Horror Masters: Examining the Films of Asia Argento and Jennifer Chambers Lynch

Scarlet Diva and Boxing Helena

This guest post is written by Juliette Faraone.

[Trigger warning: discussion of abuse]

In this essay, I seek to explore the relationship between subject and object. I also seek to better understand how these concepts are influenced and informed by gender and the media. This essay seeks a lot of things. I’m thirsty.

I’m here to discuss the films of Asia Argento and Jennifer Chambers Lynch. I’ve chosen to focus primarily on their debut films: Scarlet Diva, made in 2000, and Boxing Helena, released in 1993.

Neither Argento nor Lynch was wholly new to me — I’d come across Argento’s The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things back in 2005 during my Winona Ryder phase. Ryder had a small part, if I recall correctly – it was during all the shoplifting fuss, and she’d taken sort of a hiatus at that point. I digress. Argento’s acting originally drew me into her work, and I first arrived to her films by way of her father, filmmaker Dario Argento.

Having been a massive Twin Peaks fan, I knew Jennifer Lynch primarily as the author of The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. Sometime after its publication, she served as a production assistant on her father’s film, Blue Velvet. Now, I have mixed feelings about David Lynch. Actually, I guess my feelings for David himself are mostly positive — it’s Lynch fans I have a problem with. But hey, that’s another topic for another day.

Long story short, these women intrigued me. Both are the daughters of prominent filmmakers, and both released their first feature film at the age of 25. My own father was a juvenile probation officer, so I couldn’t exactly relate in terms of family ties, but being 25 years old myself, I admired their gusto.

I started with Scarlet Diva. I’ll admit I was turned off by the DVD cover, but decided to give it a shot. The movie itself was surprisingly contemplative – quiet even. Sole screenwriting credit goes to Asia Argento, and though there’s not much dialogue, in my mind that’s a skill in itself. The writing felt minimalist; Meg White on drums minimalist. It was nice – something a 25-year-old woman would make (whatever that means). And it was a road movie, which earned it extra points in my heart. There are probably a great many female-driven road movies, but I can’t really think of any not featuring male leads or love interests. Did you just name one? I’m proud of you — I could only really think of Boys on the Side – at any rate, the number is small. How many female-driven, Bechdel Test-passing, road movies have been made in the past 10 years? Whenever people complain about similarities in women-led films, I try to remind them Hollywood saw fit to release not just one but seven Fast & Furious films, so I think we can probably handle it. Not knocking the Fast franchise, but come on.

In Scarlet Diva, Asia Argento plays Anna Battista, an actress and aspiring director. The title sequence starts with Anna sitting alone on the bus. She stares out the window, observing the scenery but also looking at her own reflection. From the first shot of the film, we witness Anna as both subject and object.

Of course, in broadening our vision, we see Asia Argento not only as dual subject and object, but also as an outside force – the director. She exists apart from her creation, and this is especially important for women. I was once of the mind-set that greater numbers of women directors in film didn’t necessarily equate to progress because it was the content of the film that mattered. This line of thinking now strikes me as, well, pretty fucking stupid. Of course women’s voices matter; representation is crucial.

Asia Argento used a tripod to film many of the scenes in Scarlet Diva herself. Both she and her character display exhibitionist tendencies, but still assert their control over situations. This control is vital to Anna’s character. In one scene, Anna’s co-workers give her drugs. She’s a bit reluctant to take the drugs at first, but her co-workers persuade her to take them. Moments later, Anna awakens in bed beside the man and woman — all three are naked. The room is dark, and Anna is overcome with dread. She’s lost control, and she lets out a scream. This scene was, for me, the most painful in the film.

In moments like this, we learn that while Anna is self-aware, she isn’t omniscient. When Anna derides an actor friend for “selling out” to become a sex worker in L.A., he reminds her that she always said acting is prostitution. Anna’s quick to laugh at herself, and we see a continuation of this love/hate relationship for performance scattered throughout the film.

'Boxing Helena'

Boxing Helena began to take shape thirteen years before Scarlet Diva — in 1987, when Jennifer Lynch was just 19 years old. She was chosen to develop the story, written by Philippe Caland, into a film. I’ll admit, on the surface, Scarlet Diva and Boxing Helena are two very different films. Scarlet Diva is intimate — confessional, even. A film shot entirely on digital video, it deals with personal subjects in personal settings, with little pretense along the way. Boxing Helena is slick and larger scale. It has the veneer of Hollywood and in parts, plays almost like a fairy tale. Unlike Scarlet Diva, some of the interactions in Lynch’s movie feel false, and Bill Paxton in black leather pants doesn’t help matters. Instead of a first person subjective camera, we are presented with a pretty conventional narrative structure, insofar as the film has a couple of main characters and follows them around from scene to scene. Nevertheless, the two films share ties.

In Boxing Helena, Sherilyn Fenn plays the title character, and if she has a last name, we don’t know it. Viewers aren’t told much about Helena, and we can’t really fault the character for any lack of personal dynamism — the narrative paints her as object from start to finish — even the film’s title suggests she is the receiver of the action.

I’m assuming at this point you’re all low-key aware of the plot of Boxing Helena. Helena spurns the advances of Julian Sand’s character, a doctor named Nick who is — spoiler alert — a major creep. Apparently, Helena and Nick dated for three seconds before she decided he wasn’t the guy for her and he’s been obsessed with her ever since. Helena gets into a car accident outside Nick’s home, and, being a doctor, he performs surgery on her. Pretty okay so far, except, you know, during surgery he amputates both of her legs. Nick keeps Helena hostage in this way throughout a lot of the film, until she’s had enough and tries to hurt him. At this point, Nick thinks it’s a good idea to get rid of her arms too.

Credit where it’s due: Helena gets in some good verbal jabs — at one point, she says to Nick, after witnessing an exchange from another room, “You’re a goddamn joke.” As a female viewer, I took pleasure in that moment. What woman hasn’t experienced the misery of male entitlement? That said, I’m not sure what Lynch was aiming for in terms of general audience response to her film as a whole, which is actually a big part of the reason I fight for it. I like a little confusion every now and then. It reminds me I’m human — neurons firing, gray matter doing whatever gray matter’s supposed to do, etc.

Nick is persistent in his obsession with Helena. Since a young age, he’s been taught anything in life is obtainable with enough perseverance. Nick sees Helena as not just a conquest but also as fulfillment of some childhood goal. He robs her of her limbs. He objectifies her both literally and figuratively, and, as the audience, we’re right there alongside him. Early in the movie, we watch Nick as he watches Helena. In these scenes, Lynch transforms the camera into the male gaze.

Scarlet Diva and Boxing Helena were made nearly a decade apart and likely with different demographics in mind. Still, we can sense a trend in critical response. Neither work was well received. Boxing Helena was seen as too extreme – misogynistic, even – with a message that confused viewers (myself included). I’d really like to scratch out the last ten minutes of the movie and pretend they never existed. It’d be a much stronger film. Still, it has its moments. Scarlet Diva didn’t bomb, but it wasn’t exactly a hit with audiences either. I knew the film had been chiefly criticized for being “self-indulgent” – criticism I don’t disagree with. But so what? Of course it’s self-indulgent. And I don’t mean in the “all art is self-indulgent” sort of way. (Or maybe I do, but I tend to hate that argument.) It’s self-indulgent in the sense that sometimes getting noticed requires a little push and shove. Who else is going to indulge a young female filmmaker? And what, we then ask, are women to make films about? What would critics prefer? If these films were the product of real women’s thoughts, feelings, drives, perceptions – why was there such a resistance?

Both of these women filmmakers have gone on to direct other films. Would this have been possible without their already established family fame? Would they have even been able to get their first efforts funded? And what of the unknown director – what happens to her?

At one point in Scarlet Diva, Anna finds her friend Veronica bound and gagged in her apartment, and she hasn’t eaten in days. We learn Veronica’s boyfriend is responsible for this abuse. After untying her friend, Anna quips, “You’re like the American housewife who gets beaten but doesn’t tell on her husband.” The friend agrees with the comparison — but after all, she’s in love. (Yikes.) Interestingly, in an interview from around the time of Boxing Helena’s release, Jennifer Chambers Lynch described her film “as a love story, not a horror film”:

“Obsessive love is like a series of amputations as you steal from one another. It’s inviting, exciting, and animalistic. I’ve been there; I’ve been drawn to it.” 

I’d be foolish to directly contradict Lynch’s own view of her film. For all I know, she still regards her film as a love story. Nevertheless, it is (in my mind anyway) the duty of the critic to reflect on art and to interpret its role in a larger cultural context. In Boxing Helena, Lynch briefly takes the nightmare in Scarlet Diva to the next level – it’s not just the loss of control to be feared most — it’s resignation. To forget one’s passion and to acquiesce to another’s will is the ultimate self-betrayal.

Boxing Helena

Taking all of this into consideration, and despite both films being written and directed by women, I’m not comfortable calling either of these films feminist. I don’t think they’re actively misogynistic, but I do think as responsible consumers of art we should be discerning in our application of the F-word. It means something and I want it to keep on meaning something.

There’s a famous Oscar Wilde quote that goes, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book.” In this age, complex questions of morality have gone out of vogue and have been replaced by a single phrase: “Is it problematic?” This question isn’t inherently harmful, but it does become dangerous when it’s used to avoid thinking critically. Instead of asking if a work is problematic (or at least in addition to it), we must train ourselves to ask a new set of questions: How does the narrative treat those subjects? Does it look on them favorably? Why or why not?

So let’s cut to the chase. If you take one thing away from this essay, let it be this: it’s absolutely imperative for a woman to write her own story.

Are you a woman? Do you have something to say? Of course you do. Write it down. Don’t let anyone or anything stop you. You’re the fucking master of your own universe. Believe that with all your heart. I do.

Juliette Faraone studied digital media and film at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College before earning her BA in comparative literature from the University of Evansville. She is an editorial intern at Ms. magazine and a staff writer for Screen Queens. Her work has also appeared at Lesbians Over Everything, Slant and the Zusterschap Collective. In her spare time, Juliette watches a lot of old musicals and talks to her girlfriend and cats.