Submitting to Secretary


All evidence suggests that the people who made Secretary didn’t pay much attention to the failure of David Cronenberg’s Crash. The movies share a similar M.O.: A relatively normal (stress on “relatively,” particularly with Secretary) person is introduced to sexual practices that some might consider deviant and violent, and then gives him- or herself over the them. And the films also have the same fatal flaw: They are closed systems that don’t allow access to the characters. Both are beautifully made and so distant that the most I can do is admire their craftsmanship.

The key difference between the movies is one of tone, but taking a lighter approach to the material doesn’t really help Secretary at all. While Crash was classically Canadian in its humorlessness, Secretary is all over the place, a tonal disaster that never finds its feet. It tries to be bold in its frank portrayal of dominance and submission and S&M, but it’s also trying to be a love story. All the characters have some serious mental-health issues, but the movie makes light of everything from cutting to alcoholism to sexual harassment. It has the texture of dream, but there are no markers in the movie to suggest it is one.

Those things, by themselves, aren’t necessarily bad things. The movie shares its discomforting, attitude-challenging approach with the work of Todd Solondz, whose Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness are amazingly adept at walking a fine line between comedy and drama while looking unblinkingly at “deviant” behavior. Secretary stumbles where Solondz excels, though; it fails because it never gives the audience anything human to hold on to.

The early part of the movie is full of potential. Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh out of a mental institution, presumably because her parents think she tried to kill herself, even though she simply miscalculated when trying to use a kitchen knife to mutilate herself.

Lee applies for the job of secretary for attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader), and from the outset the situation seems a bit strange. For one thing, the sign outside advertising for a secretary is a permanent fixture. As Lee enters the building for her interview, a woman is crying and leaving with a box. Grey does his damnedest to scare Lee away, stressing how boring the job is, that it involves only typing and answering the phones, and that the office doesn’t even have a computer. Grey asks nearly every question you’re not allowed to ask in a job interview: Are you married? Are you pregnant? Are you going to get pregnant? He’s distracted and mannered, and Spader’s off-key performance (I recognize the redundancy) keeps the audience on edge, even though Lee seems oblivious.

Grey appears to be the worst boss one could have, inconsistent and borderline psychotic, correcting typos with a red marker and berating Lee for playing with her hair and sniffling. He spies her cutting herself, calls her into his office, and tells her that she will never cut herself again. And that’s the end of that.

The character of Grey, at least for a while, is far more interesting than Lee. He is a man who is clearly unbalanced, and he looks at Lee as someone more screwed up than he. She is to him a toy, and he plays with her mercilessly, taking joy (or something like it) out of manipulating her, playing both the good cop and bad cop roles, almost at the same time, pushing her, seeing how much he can change and shape her.

Then the spanking starts.

There is something interesting going on here. The employer-employee power dynamic is taken to an extreme, and then it spills over into a semi-sexual realm. I say “semi-sexual” because it takes a while before it becomes obviously sexual for Grey, and when it crosses that line, he is repulsed by his behavior. It almost seems that he honestly considers the spanking part of his employee-discipline policy, completely asexual.

One could read this midsection of the movie as some sort of statement on S&M and dominance and submission, that these practices fundamentally involve abuses of power, and that they’re not part of a healthy sexuality. But the rest of the movie is a romance of a sort, muting any critique of or comment on the role of power in sex. These are two people who find happiness with each other, even if it does involve bondage.

The movie is beautiful to look at — director Steven Shainberg has a wonderful, fetishistic eye, and he sometimes achieves something approaching eroticism — and it’s not exactly badly written. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (working from a short story by Mary Gaitskill) has crafted an interesting, unusual story, but the characters are already so far removed from normalcy at the beginning of the movie that it’s impossible to care what happens to them or understand their choices; there’s no connection.

Grey is a cipher, and the film draws much of its tension from the audience’s inability to read him or guess what he’s going to do next. As for Lee, Gyllenhaal shares with her brother Jake (Donnie Darko) a certain child-like openness, and that quality gives her character the appearance of substance. Her expressive face conveys the full range of emotions, and it almost kept me from realizing that the character was woefully underdeveloped; it’s a sketch rather than a fully realized painting, and that statement applies to the movie as a whole.

I very much enjoy reading your reviews, but I must say that I disagree with you about the depth of Secretary. I like the casual treatment of the characters’ seemingly deviant behaviors. I find it to be quite effective. In fact, that is my favorite part of the film--the way that Lee and Grey are not treated as freaks, as deviants.

I find the love story to be terribly convincing because it shows love in an unorthodox way, in a way that shocks our sensibilities yet entices them in the same instant. Because the backdrop for the love story is so incredibly odd and unfamiliar to the common viewer, the story is stripped of the usual conventions of ‘love’, leaving only the most perfunctory, real traces of Love. The ‘courtship’ [for lack of a better word] of Grey and Lee does not entail dinners, flowers, wine, or any other trivialities commonly associated with ‘love.’ [The climax is the scene in which Lee, garbed in a wedding dress, is forced to sit at Grey’s desk for days on end. She is not ‘allowed’ to move her hands and feet, and she has even urinated on herself to prevent breaking these orders. This seems so depraved, but I was genuinely touched by the sacrifice she makes and the reward she receives for said sacrifice.]

In other words, we cannot really relate to the characters’ perspectives, so we as an audience must, by default, focus on the subtext, the meat. And, that’s where I find the most joy. [On a sidenote, this very point was my main reason for so loving Punchdrunk Love, but I completely and totally digress...]

And, the relationship between Grey and Lee--for all its eccentricities and unusual aspects--is terribly tender. [Think about the scene when Grey bathes Lee. It’s gorgeous.]

Not to sound too simplistic, but I think to gain the full effect, you have to set aside any preconceived notions you have about what love is or is not. Taboos be damned. My most basic appreciation for the film is that Secretary depicts an alternative methodology to Love, but without perverting the feeling, the emotion.

These characters are not sexual miscreants bereft of any depth: they are sensitive, even self-conscious. At the onset of the film, they feel themselves that they are freaks; but, finding one another is relieving assurance that they are simply out of the ordinary--not crazy, not really as depraved as they seem to be.

I found the film to be beautiful, touching.

And, the ending is arguably “good”--as trite as that sounds. There is resolution: they find a poignant love, and both ultimately pursue the best path available. Grey’s neuroses are curbed, calmed by Lee; and, Lee’s self-mutilation is ended by Grey. [They are good for one another.]

But, that’s just my point of view...

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