I noticed that the MPAA gave Secretary
an “R” rating partially because the movie depicted “behavior disorder.” Hopefully, they are referring to self-mutilation, and not sadomasochism, because if they did, and I wouldn’t put it past the typically clueless MPAA, they missed the entire point of the film. The second film I have seen, in about a month, that has featured S&M, the ultimately sweet-natured, black/romantic comedy is as different from The Piano Teacher
as night is from day (though they would make an interesting double bill), telling the story of two sad, damaged people who eventually find each other through their mutual love of spanking (among other things).
has more in common with other filmic pleas for sexual tolerance, replete with an implausibly supportive family, but I’ll get to that later. The film tells the story of Lee Halloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young woman recently released from a mental institution. Burdened with an alcoholic father, smothering mother, and bitchy older sister, Lee turned to self-mutilation as a way to release her pain; she was committed when she accidentally went too far and cut herself badly in front of her mother. After her release, she begins a tentative relationship with an old high school friend, Peter (played by Jeremy Davies channeling the spirit of scruffy-era Corey Feldman. What, Corey Feldman’s not dead? Oh yeah, just his career), and finds employment as a secretary for a lawyer named E. Earl Grey (James Spader), who goes through secretaries so fast, he has a permanent “Secretary Wanted” sign, lighted up like a hotel vacancy sign, hanging outside his office signboard. As you’ve probably heard, a rather unique relationship develops between Lee and Mr. Grey.
The film jumps into their relationship dynamic right away, beginning with a long steadicam shot of Lee fetching files, papers and coffee for her employer. The catch, her outstretched arms are shackled to a long, iron bar. This shot sets the tone of the film: deadpan, slightly absurd. The tone is everything; the film could have been potentially dreadful if it wasn’t for director Steven Shainberg’s skill at setting the right tone, that mixture of romance, sadness, humor, and even dread. I would call the film almost Lynchian in feel, and that adjective is not due solely to using regular David Lynch composer Angelo Badalmenti for the score (also effective is the usage of pop songs, especially the Leonard Cohen song “I’m Your Man”), or the few surreal dream sequences (which actually are not like Lynch at all). It is also because of the production design of Mr. Grey’s office, the mixture of cluttered period design (the office employs typewriters and old fashioned speakerphones) and moody lighting.
At one point, Mr. Grey declares that he is not “running a mortuary,” but you could have fooled me. The entire building is massive, the characters are seemingly dwarfed by the long hallways and cavernous rooms, a feeling accentuated by the fact that it seems hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world, as if the two characters are isolated, cut off. Actually, the film works best as a two character drama. When it strays outside the office, the film weakens (with the exception of the scenes between Lee and Mr. Grey at his house), adopting more of the conventional look of the suburban satire.
Of course, the performances are great, especially Maggie Gyllenhaal; I wonder what it is in the Gyllenhaal DNA that not only makes the family great actors, but also compells them to choose interesting roles. Lee is adorable and sexy, and I liked how the Gyllenhaal played her, her way of speech was calm and halting (everyone normally speaks so calmly and quietly, again emphasizing the tomblike atmosphere of the office; when Spader’s Mr. Grey actually yells it’s almost startling), with a touch of a Southern lilt, and the way she initially walked is just right, with the hunched shoulders, something that she slowly abandons as the film progresses. Actually it is interesting watching Lee’s evolution from a wallflower to someone more assertive, it’s mirrored in her clothes, from her frumpy, shapeless dresses to more streamlined and sexy ones.
James Spader has cornered the market on sexually dysfunctional performances (I mean who are you going to call after sex, lies, and videotape
?), and here is another good one. He’s sad, lonely, shy (he admits to Lee that he is shy, but that he has found ways to overcome his shyness); he’s repressed and afraid of his own sexuality, even though he would never hurt anyone or anything (the humane mousetraps), he thinks his domination fantasies are just wrong, and he can’t handle his feeling when someone actually reciprocates.
Actually the film’s message would work equally well with any other kinds of “alternative” sexuality (I hate that term because it seems to demarcate normal sexuality from abnormal sexuality, when it should just be human sexuality, but I’ll get off my soapbox). Another thing that I really enjoyed about the film was mostly bypassing attempts at overtly psychologizing the characters’ dilemmas (at one point Mr. Grey explains Lee’s self-mutilation by comparing her inner pain with out pain and the comfort she gains when she sees herself heal; the other time is when Lee is listening to a self-help tape called “Coming Out as Submissive,” the later is a joke, the former, more of a throwaway line), and allowing the actors to “bear” this burden (a great example is the look on Maggie Gyllenhaal’s face whenever, she is bent over Mr. Grey’s desk, especially the one time, where he asks her to take off her panties and he masturbates on her; it’s a complex mixture of emotions).
While the film pretty much bypasses the employer-employee relationship in this little intra-office romance, I actually think of it as a feminist film, or at least having a feminist message. Even though Lee is the submissive one in the relationship, she is also the most assertive when it comes to what she wants; she’s the one most comfortable and open with her sexuality, enjoying herself and knowing what pleases her. In particular, I’m thinking of the comic scene between Lee and the clueless Peter, when she offers herself up for some spanking, but ends up settling for passionless and, apparently, boring sex (another is her continued seeking of S&M relationships, leading to a quick sequence of comic dates, well at least the guy who likes to be tied up to the stove and have tomatoes thrown at him). It’s an interesting twist, the submissive in control of her own body and sexuality.
If I was going to quibble with anything in the movie, it would be some parts of the ending. To prove herself to Mr. Grey, Lee stays sitting at his desk, palms on the table, feet on the floor, for several days, wearing a wedding dress (in the interim, she was going to marry Peter, but decided to break it off). Parts of this sequence I really liked, especially when Spader’s Mr. Grey, spying on Lee from outside the window, finally admits his feelings for her (“I’m fond of you too, Lee.”), and especially the comedy aspects of the sequence, including the media circus caused by all of Lee’s friends and family camping out in the front yard of the office. It’s actually the improbably supportive family that bugs me in these types of films (something that also irked me in the Varda film I watched Kung Fu Master
), would a family that freaked out so much when Lee cut herself would fully embrace her lifestyle choices (well, to be fair, they all don’t, but Lee’s recovering alcoholic father reads her scripture “...your body and soul are to do with as you please.”) Then there is the point when Mr. Grey comes back to Lee and takes her upstairs, the mausoleum of the first floor replaced by some sort of sexy B&B, with wicker furniture, a bath basin, and bed of grass, but I really can’t complain that much about a scene featuring a naked Maggie Gyllenhaal.
The final coda of the film encapsulates the films message. Lee and Mr. Grey are married, and they are able to “do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” just as they please (it’s interesting to again note, how the “submissive,” Lee manipulates the situation and asserts her own wishes by placing a dead cockroach on the immaculate bedspread, sure to bring “punishment.”) Two people have found each other, and are happy together. As Mr. Grey drivers off and Lee watches him, with a content look on her face, it is revealed that they live in a comfortable suburb (it’s actually sunny, lively, the first glimpse of suburbia in the film that is positive). The abnormal is normal, healthy, happy, together.