Secretary (2002) is a black comedy directed by Steven Shainberg, written by Erin Cressida, Mary Gaitskill, and Steven Shainberg. It also stars Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, SherryBaby), James Spader (Stargate, The Practice TV Series), and Jeremy Davies (Saving Private Ryan, Lost TV series) in a film about a young woman, recently released from a mental hospital, gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer.
Secretary is based on the 1988 novella, Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill. In the book, Gaitskill delves into the taboo subject of S & M, and the central characters of the story are a secretary and her boss–who is a very successful attorney –that frequently changes his secretarial staff.
The film is mainly narrated by Lee Halloway (Gyllenhaal) who was just discharged from a mental health treatment facility for “cutting” herself. She is reserved; shy, with little self-esteem, and pretty much socially isolated from her family. However, there is a lot going on–her father is an abusive alcoholic, he mother is an over nurturing abused woman (Lesley Ann Warren) and her sister, now married, and she and her husband has to live in their parents pool guest house. While at her sister’s wedding, she is approached by Peter (Jeremy Davies), who is also a social isolate and awkward weirdo who lives with his parents, to dance. When they do, her father (Stephen McHattie) staggers over to tell Lee that he is happy she is home. Lee, reeling back in disgust, because her father is visibly drunk–she tells him, “I thought you were going to quit?” Running off into the house.
Pressured with familiar difficulties, Lee escapes to her room and as if ritualistic, removes a sewing kit, decorated with flowers and butterflies but filled with the various devices she uses to relieve herself of her inner demons and outside stresses–she chooses a porcelain ballerina and sharpens the foot on a file before lifting up her dress and pressing the ballerina’s shoe deep into her outer thigh. She is relieved and at the same time, repulsed by what she had done. Her mother locked the knives in the kitchen cabinet, because one time, Lee cut herself deeply while washing dishes, because she believed that no one was watching her. Determined to rid herself of this self-destructive and self-inflicted behavior, she decided to get a job. She found an ad for a “secretary” and decided to apply.
Mr. Edward Grey (Spader) a reserved and, quite possibly, a successful attorney. He is similar to Lee, but different in that he is obsessive compulsive, dominant, and fearful of anyone who has the similar dominate personality. It’s obvious that he has issues. Regardless, it seems that he is in constant need of a secretary. His “secretary wanted” sign is a permanent fixture outside of his office door. When Lee is interviewed by Mr. Edward Grey. Immediately, they are both aware of each others differences: Lee’s reserved, submissive composure; and Mr. Grey’s dominate and authoritarian exterior = a match made in heaven. I will spare you of all the other personality details because this isn’t why you are reading the review–I am certain you are here for the naughty bits.
Personally, I did not think the scenes between Mr. Grey and Lee were all that bad. It can be considered as “something different” to see than your average ’R’ rated film. Sadomasochism is a bit taboo for some, so some of the scenes in the film may be startling for some viewers. I must say that I am at a disadvantage because I haven’t read Gaitskill’s book, so without having the experience of reading or the experience of doing I will be delivering a disservice to you, dear reader, for possibly bashing the more intimate scenes between the film’s two main characters. I will state, however, that there is more of order, release, and redemption in the minor acts themselves. Mr. Grey, acting dominant because of his own fear of abandonment; Lee a willing submissive–and perhaps, in need of authoritarian guidance–due to her father being a repulsive , abusive, and broken alcoholic.
When everything changes for Lee, it’s because of of a typo. After previously enduring harsh criticisms on how she dressed; the way she sniffed when she became nervous; how she fiddled with her hair–and now, a typo. She had to be taught a lesson. So, after Lee was called into his office, he told her to bend over the desk with her face close enough to the letter so she could read it out loud. She was then “spanked“ repeatedly, until her bottom was a ripe and blistering blood red. She enjoyed it immensely, as did he. Thereafter, their relationship went through tumultuous montages of violent sexual encounters up until a point when Mr. Grey began again, to treat her “normally.” Which was something she was no longer accustomed to–releasing within her the desire for freedom, and love. And for him, control. In a quote from the film:
Mr. Edward Grey: We cannot do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Lee Holloway: Why not?
Gyllenhaal is brilliant and believable. Spader, who isn’t a stranger to portraying these kind of roles (Sex, Lies, and Videotape;White Palace), both manage to pull off powerful performances. The other characters and personalities that surround them in this film are of minute importance. The dynamics that surround Gyllenhaal and Spader’s character-relationship and performances were a superior stand alone in this film. Director Shainberg’s cinematic sadomasochism–or Secretary film–is a love story. There’s no doubt about that. Shainberg takes on a relationship that blossoms within the workplace, between two people who were more likely to involve themselves due to proximity; and ultimately defining value in self-worth and passion.
“In one way or another I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt and I’ve found someone to feel with. To play with. To love in a way that feels right for me. I hope he knows that I can see that he suffers too. And that I want to love him.”
- editor rating4
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