Secretary

Review by Adam Blair

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 extreme.

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story's start, and have to see Lee's awkwardness and self-loathing, our curiosity is piqued as to how she moves from withdrawn cocoon to submissive but beautiful butterfly.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.

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