Secretary theatrical poster

USA, 2002. Rated R. 104 minutes.

Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie, Jessica Tuck, Oz Perkins, Amy Locane, Patrick Bauchau, Mary Joy, Michael Mantell, Lily Knight
Writers: Erin Cressidy Wilson (screenplay and story adaptation) and Steven Shainberg (story adaptation), based on the story by Mary Gaitskill
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Cinematographer: Steven Fierberg
Producers: Steven Shainberg, Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby
Director: Steven Shainberg


Grade: A Review by Carlo Cavagna


A  film sure to create controversy, Secretary is a romantic comedy in the way that Ghost World is a teen movie, or that Fight Club is a buddy picture. Many viewers will have a tough time checking their political baggage at the door. Some will be unable to overcome their distaste for alternative sex, while others will focus on the power imbalance between the two protagonists, even though the imbalance is entirely illusory. All will miss the point and fail to appreciate the passion, humor, and unorthodox eroticism of an unexpectedly tender film about a most unusual relationship. It begins when a complicated but inconspicuous young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) takes a secretarial position with the inscrutable Mr. E. Edward Grey (James Spader). As the film basks in the sumptuous atmosphere of the otherworldly law offices and the protagonists inch closer to each other, we gradually learn who they are.

Even those not predisposed to the appetites depicted may find the film sexy, because Secretary is not a movie about fetishism. It is a movie about passion. It is also a tease. A patient film that never drags, Secretary caringly nurtures its story, relishing every moment and prolonging the audience's anticipation as it luxuriates through its hour and three quarters running time. It is that rare romance that leaves you never knowing what to expect next and eager to find out--provided you don't read too much about the film beforehand.

Secretary teaser posterAnalysis

Readers who have not yet seen Secretary are encouraged to read this analysis after viewing the film. The analysis discusses the whole of the film, including the ending.

Secretary reveals its eccentricities right away. In the thoroughly bizarre opening scene, we encounter Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in prim business attire, wearing a collar with a horizontal pole extending from it to her left and right. Her hands are cuffed to each end, so that she looks crucified. Thus restrained, she floats through an opulent office awash in vibrant hues, performing menial secretarial tasks. She staples with one hand and fixes coffee with the other. She grabs a sheet of paper from a typewriter with her teeth, and disappears down the hall. The anomaly isn't the fetishistic gear she is wearing, however. It is the peaceful look of contentment on her face.

Secretary flashes back six months. We meet Lee again, looking distinctly plainer, as she departs a psychiatric institution where she has spent six months for habitually cutting herself. She returns home, where she attends her unappealingly conventional sister's conventional wedding. These few minutes are so banal by comparison to the opening--and distinctly less color-saturated--that the mind is tempted to set the introduction aside as a surreal dream, or a metaphor. Surely the prologue cannot be meant literally. Because Secretary lures you into ignoring the beginning, what happens later is no less shocking than if the introduction had been omitted. In one pre-release screening, there were audible intakes of breath when Mr. E. Edward Grey (James Spader) first spanks Lee.

Mr. Grey is a nightmare boss. The first questions he asks of Lee in her job interview are enough to justify a mammoth sexual harassment lawsuit that would make the Clarence Thomas hearings look like one of Larry King's slow-pitch interviews. Every query is illegal. Are you pregnant? Do you plan to get pregnant? Do you live in an apartment? On and on, he probes Lee's personal life. Poor naïve Lee responds gamely. When Mr. Grey warns her that the work is boring, she becomes more spirited, insisting that she wants to be bored. A simple secretarial position is ideal--a job that will enable her to become more adult without complicating her life. All she has to do is follow instructions and perform mundane tasks.

Mr. Grey's requirements of Lee, however, become outlandish and demeaning. Because only typewriters are permitted in his palatial offices--none of those new-fangled word processors--Lee must retype letters in their entirety when she makes mistakes. These Mr. Grey enthusiastically circles with red markers, thrusting the letters back in her face. He deploys Lee to the dumpster to fetch a folder, only to tell her he has found another copy when she returns. He pitches Lee's gift of donuts into the trash without regard for her feelings. He orders Lee to stop sniffling and start wearing a hair net, because he can't stand her playing with her hair. We grow more and more horrified, not yet realizing that there is something else going on here.

The signs are there, however--the previous secretary's tearful exit as Lee arrives; Mr. Grey's oddball reaction whenever Lee follows an unreasonable order without complaint (and his erratic behavior in general); his futile attempts to control the impulse to assault Lee's work with the red marker. There are signs, too, that Mr. Lee is no monster--his fastidious cultivation of his resplendent plants; the way he carefully frees the mice he catches in his Have-A-Heart traps, unharmed. His surrealistically opulent offices become an exotic haven for Lee. (Tangentially, why does a two-person office have a bathroom with stalls?)

We don't yet see that Lee and Mr. Grey are forging a strong psychological and sexual bond. Though Lee doesn't yet understand it either, Mr. Grey is giving her what she wants, perhaps even needs. Their profound connection first emerges when Mr. Grey helps Lee turn her back forever on self-mutilation. Mr. Grey forces her to discuss it, demonstrating that he understands exactly why she cuts herself in the brief monologue that tumbles out of him. Is it that sometimes the pain inside has to come to the surface? Yes. And when you see evidence of the pain inside, you finally know you are really here? Yes. Then when you watch the wound heal, it's comforting, isn't it? Yes, it is. Mr. Grey corrects Lee HollowayMr. Grey announces gently but firmly that Lee is not going to do it anymore. It is in the past. Walking home after their exchange, Lee observes in the voiceover narration that she feels nurtured and held by Mr. Grey.

It is preposterous to think that someone who has been cutting herself since the seventh grade can just stop at someone's say-so. Previous efforts to conquer her compulsion, including her six-month commitment, have all spectacularly failed. The very first day out of the institution, she's pressing a boiling teapot against her thigh, driven to the compulsion by yet another tussle between her alcoholic father and battered mother. Yet Mr. Grey's tack works. It works, because it is an order from him, and Lee's desire to do what he says has become stronger than the other compulsion. Mr. Grey must sense it, because the very next day, he summons Lee into his office for her first spanking. Their relationship, with Mr. Grey as the dominant and Lee as the submissive, is finally explicit--but not overtly sexual. Not yet.

One could argue that Lee has merely replaced one self-abnegating compulsion for another. That might even be true…if the dominant were someone other than Mr. Grey. He grasps immediately that there's something unusual about Lee, remarking on it in their job interview. There's something about you. You're…closed. "I know," Lee admits. Mr. Grey may have his own needs to feed, but he is attuned to Lee like no one else in her life--not her parents, not her sister, and most certainly not her ineffectual, wimpy suitor, Peter (Jeremy Davies), whom everyone assumes is a perfect match for Lee because he is similarly mousy and shy. Lee's counselor at the institution (Patrick Bauchau) might understand Lee, but he's not in the film long enough to evaluate their rapport.

Despite their S&M role playing, we never once sense that Lee is unsafe with Mr. Grey--the contrary appears to be true. With him, she is learning to accept herself and to express her masochism in less harmful activities. As a contrast, Secretary offers the horrifically abusive relationship between Lee's parents. What Lee has with Mr. Grey isn't anything like it.

Mr. Grey, however, does not accept himself. Like Lee, he struggles against conventional notions about what is normal. Even though Lee makes it ever more obvious that she is a keen participant in their games, a part of him is still imprisoned by socially-imposed inhibitions. He stops for a time, but Lee provokes him ever more strongly by "misbehaving," finally resorting to giving him an earthworm in an envelope. It's too much for Mr. Grey--he masturbates onto her bare bottom instead of spanking her, but he still can't acknowledge to Lee his sexual and emotional need for her. The look Lee gives him afterward is one of pity.

Mr. Grey loathes himself so much that he cannot believe that Lee really craves what he gives her. Maybe she's just weak. Maybe she's so unable to stick up for herself that she can't say no. Mr. Grey may be the dominant, but he is even more insecure than Lee. Wracked with guilt, he goes so far as to fire Lee, because he says he won't stop if he doesn't. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I am this way," Mr. Grey apologizes. Lee is furious--no evidence of the weakling she is supposed to be--yet Mr. Grey still doesn't get it. "We can't do this 24 hours a day," he argues. "Why not!?" Lee asks, to no avail.

Lee tries to replicate her relationship with Mr. Grey by meeting new partners through the classifieds. They're slaves to their hilarious fetishes, however, and not interested in Lee as a person. At the other end of the relationship spectrum, Lee has a robust friendship with Peter, but no sexual chemistry. In the climactic sequence of events, Lee finally thrusts Peter aside and returns to Mr. Grey's office to declare she loves him. His response is to say she only thinks she does.

The ending is about Lee proving otherwise. Mr. Grey orders Lee to sit with her feet on the floor and hands flat on his desk. Then he summons Peter to his office, assuming that Lee's fiancé will force her back to reality. Peter does not. When he manages to dislodge Lee from her position at the desk, she actually hits him. This is no meek wallflower--not anymore. During her employment at The Law Offices of E. Edward Grey, she has matured, confident and in touch with her needs.

Lee submits to Mr. Grey not from a position of weakness now, but from a position of strength. When Lee says, "Because I want to," in response to Peter's question, "Why are you doing this?" it is a definitive declaration of empowerment. She sits at the desk because she wants to follow Mr. Grey's order, and because she loves him. She is not being compelled to do anything. She is not ceding control of her life to someone else (not that she ever had it to begin with, until now).

This is the message Lee sends with her three-day vigil. During it, characters from her life (and then some) pass through, pleading with her to give up and come home. Even the local news shows up, until, finally, Mr. Grey returns to carry her away, and they live happily ever after. at your service

Though Secretary ably delineates Mr. Grey's struggle with himself, it could have done more to get close to him. What is the deal with his previous secretaries, including the one we see in tears? Who is his ex-wife, who seems to be able to order him around? What about the paralegal and her knowing smile--what does she know? A film should not explain too much, but these lingering uncertainties leave the final outcome in some doubt. Might Mr. Grey repeat the pattern with his next secretary while his new bride waits at home, tied to the bedposts?

Spader overcomes these few gaps in the script by communicating much of his character's interior life wordlessly. Mr. Grey is the ultimate James Spader Role, the part he has been playing in some form for twenty years--the corporate prick, the preppie jerk, the creepy guy in the nice clothes. Spader is cast to type, but at the same time Mr. Grey is a difficult character who requires him to stretch unexpectedly and amuse us with subtle comedic skills we didn't know he had.

The star, however, is Gyllenhaal, with her sweet unassuming face, liquid eyes, and delightfully curling smile. She is fearless. She's funny and sweet, and she transitions from meek and weak to strong and empowered without abandoning her character's core identity--not an easy thing to do. It is a wonderful performance.

Secretary is funny, too. Quite funny. In addition to the understated humor in the performances and language, screenwriter Erin Cressidy Wilson and director Stephen Shainberg play around with anomalous and ironic juxtapositions. One of the best is when Lee is hanging out by the pool with her sister and her sister's friends, who discuss sexual harassment. One of them, they feel, should sue her employer for making mild sexual insinuations. Lee enthusiastically pipes up that Mr. Grey is representing a woman in a sexual harassment suit and is an excellent lawyer. "He's the best!" Gyllenhaal delivers the line sincerely, with nary a hint of the colossal irony in her remark.

Another big joke is when, during Lee's three days at Mr. Grey's desk, a woman drops a pile of feminist literature in front of her and entreats her to read about the struggle of women. Traditional feminist thinking, of course, would see Lee's behavior as incompatible with feminine equality. The analysis would be that Lee is objectified, used, and the repository of all Mr. Grey's abusive male desires. There may even be a grain of truth in that, initially, but their rapport blossoms into something much greater than a vehicle to fulfill frustrated needs. The dynamics of their relationship are distinctly individual, and have nothing to do with politics.

In any event, if the roles were reversed, the gender politics of the relationship would not need to be discussed. The roles could easily be reversed. You could make almost exactly the same movie with male Lee and a Ms. Grey…or with two men…or with two women. Only when the male is dominant and the female is submissive do people insist on seeing the relationship as an expression of society's patriarchal power structure.

A tougher question is whether a healthy relationship can grow from desires born of illness. Most mental health specialists would agree that Lee and Mr. Grey's impulses could only be a product of abusive childhood experiences or the like. What if they are? If sexual turn-ons are imprinted in our psyches by our early formative experiences, there's little any of us can do to alter them, which is why pedophiles should be locked up forever. The goal in most other cases should be not to suppress them and deny our nature, but to channel them healthily. There is nothing wrong with alternative sexuality, Secretary argues, if it is consensual and no one gets hurt--no one who doesn't want to get hurt, that is. When Lee reads a book about "coming out" as a dominant/submissive, the movie makes the case that S&M is just another sexual preference among myriad human desires.

Regardless of what you feel about S&M, it's hard to argue that Secretary is not erotic. It's erotic to watch two people bond so intensely--their sexual wiring is electric and through it, their ardor awakens. Shainberg wasn't able to get funding in Hollywood, because as he puts it, this was not a "person overcomes personal problem movie." Secretary embraces its characters instead of condemning them or fixing them. Rather, Lee's "problem" leads to something beautiful, two people communing in body and soul--a miracle under any circumstances.

Review © September 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Lions Gate Films. All Rights Reserved.

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