Directed by Steven Shainberg;
Written by Erin Cressida Wilson, from a short story
by Mary Gaitskill
Starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal, with Lesley
Ann Warren and Jeremy Davies
Rated R, 104 minutes. A Lions Gate Film release
There are no coincidences. Last weekend, visiting a friend
who has a charming 2-and-a-half year old daughter, I was forced
to (all right, I loved it) watch Disney's Beauty and the
Beast. This weekend I saw Secretary. These films
have nothing in common, right? Or are they both fairy tales
that, despite the Disney sugar-coating in one and the porn-flavored
excesses of another, are about finding not only one's soul
mate but one's own soul? In another words, love stories?
Let me backtrack and explain a bit. Secretary is a
dark comedy about Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), recently
out of a mental hospital but still addicted to ritualized
self-mutilation. She finds a job as secretary to lawyer E.
Edward Grey (James Spader), whose demands for efficiency and
correct spelling are just the outward layers of his dominating
(as in sadism/masochism, dominant/submissive) personality.
He is the micromanaging boss from hell, carried to its logical
For those who don't want the plot spoiled before they see
the movie, I'm not giving much away. The first few minutes
of Secretary, which take place at the midpoint of the
story, spell out in a few elegant scenes how neatly and satisfyingly
Lee's submission fits with Edward's dominance. Gyllenhaal's
fluid body movements and the joy in her performance show that
Lee is not only turned on but liberated by the attentions
Edward pays to her. Director Steven Shainberg is smart to
start with Lee at her best: when we flash back to the story's
start, and have to see Lee's awkwardness and self-loathing,
our curiosity is piqued as to how she moves from withdrawn
cocoon to submissive but beautiful butterfly.
Which is not to say that the film is always easy to watch.
Shainberg doesn't soften the spankings and pain that Edward
inflicts on Lee. He wants to make the audience squirm, and
he often succeeds. But he's also sensitive enough to capture
the real, i.e. emotional, pain of being in this type of relationship.
It too is ritualized, with very specific boundaries that cannot
be crossed. When Lee wants something more from Edward - some
emotional support when her alcoholic father checks himself
into a clinic to dry out - the whole house of cards comes
tumbling down, at least for a while.
It's precisely because Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida
Wilson allow these few flashes of real feeling that Secretary
felt somewhat dissatisfying. In order for Lee and Edward to
find their own happy ending, the film has to veer ever further
into the realm of magic and fairy tale. To put it mildly,
this is not a film that's overly concerned with realism: Lee's
father leaves his mother after losing his job at the beginning
of the film, and his mother doesn't work, so who is supporting
the family and their fairly lavish upper-middle-class lifestyle?
Wouldn't Lee's parents have thrown away all the sharp objects
she uses to cut herself while she was away at the mental hospital?
Why does Edward have an entire building for his suite of offices
if he practices law alone?
But, as in Beauty and the Beast, love - yes, it's
love, even flavored with spankings, bondage and pain - does
conquer all. Secretary is a film for all the people
who were sorry that the Beast finally morphed into a smooth-skinned
boy band singer when the spell was broken. It turns that story
inside out: in this one Belle grows her own fur and claws
and settles down to a lifetime of cozy but offbeat domesticity.
The film's final shot - a defiant, smiling closeup of the
amazing Gyllenhaal - is one of the best things in the movie.
Shainberg knows how to start and finish his film with a pair
of bangs. Not everything in the middle comes up to that level.