An innocent young girl in a purple hood goes into the lair of a gruff bad wolf. He barks at her, and though she's a little frightened, she stays. The more she's around him, the more she understands the beast is angry because he is misunderstood, and because he is misunderstood, he is lonely. Better yet, he understands her, and they find out his desire to impose his will on others is the perfect prescription for a girl who needs some order in her life. Beauty tames the beast by giving it precisely what it wants.
It's been a couple of years since I've seen Secretary, but I don't recall this fairy tale element having struck a chord with me before. There is something Grimm in this grim-humored romance, something far more complicated than its reputation might suggest. When people talk about Secretary, they usually talk about it like a black comedy and giggle at how "kinky" it is. Both elements are there in the film, sure as sure, but they aren't all there is to it, or even what's most important. Behind the spankings and the games is a tender love story where two people who are perfectly right for each other give one another the courage to be exactly who they are.
Secretary was directed by Steven Shainberg (Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus) and adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe) from a short story by Mary Gaitskill. It stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee Holloway, a troubled young woman who has turned to cutting as a way to deal with an abusive home environment. Her father (Stephen McHattie) is an alcoholic who means well, her mother (Lesley Ann Warren) is a nervous nellie. Lee has a sort of boyfriend, a meek guy named Peter (Jeremy Davies). An accident made one of Lee's cutting sessions look like an attempted suicide, and she is just out of the hospital as the movie begins. Everyone wants to help her have a "normal" life.
The beginning of that life is getting a job. Lee goes to the law offices of E. Edward Grey (James Spader) to apply for a job as his secretary. Mr. Grey's work environment is in disarray, and so is he. His interview questions consist of interrogating Lee about whether or not she intends to get pregnant any time soon. She gets the gig, and a tentative relationship between employer and employee begins. Grey zeroes in on Lee's typos, gets increasingly forceful and critical with her, and she responds to his every correction. She even begins to crave it and eggs him on. It's a workplace seduction culminating in Mr. Grey spanking Lee's bottom.
What follows is an unconventional romance, but one that still sticks to some conventional narrative structures. As Lee surrenders more to Mr. Grey, she ironically begins to feel more free. He instinctively understands her needs, and even gives her advice on how to better herself. He may be "abusing" her, but it's not an abusive relationship. He is actually building her up. Lee blossoms, as does the actress playing her. Secretary is the first time I remember hearing about Maggie Gyllenhaal. She makes the most of this meaty role, working through a complicated arc that takes her from shy and sad to tentatively invested and ultimately in full control. There is a delicious twist in the middle when Lee realizes that Mr. Grey is retreating from her, convinced that his desires are aberrant. The roles reverse, and Lee has to insist that he embrace the same acceptance he made possible for her.
James Spader also gives one of his finest career performances in Secretary. An actor known for his smarm, he doesn't so much dial that down for this character as he peels back the skin to expose the insecurity that gives rise to such an attitude. If Mr. Grey is the outward beast in this fairy tale, then by the end of the movie, Lee has uncovered the inner man. It's telling that for as outside the norm as their passions are, the bliss they find is very much within it. The message of Secretary is that we should love ourselves and the bodies we are packaged in for what we and they are.
Shainberg and Wilson find the right balance between the quirkiness and the pathos, crafting a movie that flirts with dangerous things yet never loses sight of the real people involved. It would have been easy to turn Secretary into an exploitation picture that plays up the S&M for shock value or even descends into camp, but they do neither. Shainberg stages his scenes with a clear eye for where the actors should be placed, particularly in more voyeuristic sequences where Grey spies on Lee and vice-versa. Steven Fierberg's camera loves lingering on the performers, and it regularly moves with them, particularly within Grey's law offices, which at times seems to expand to accommodate the fantasy life that is occurring inside its walls. It is, after all, the beast's castle.
Secretary is a beautiful love story. It's also smart and sexy, and the film ends up being a transformative experience, both for the characters and, I'd wager, the people who watch it. Lee and Mr. Grey enter into a new morning, their love seen in a new light, and in the final shot of the film, which lingers on Maggie Gyllenhaal's marvelous face, her gaze seems to dare us to challenge her newfound peace. If we do, we just might find that it means all the same things for us that it does for her.
Subtitles are available in Spanish, standard English, and English for the deaf and hearing impaired.
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