Loading...

Taking Dictation 

Love and submission in Steven Shainberg's Secretary

Wednesday, Sep 18 2002
Comments
Photo by Bruce Birmelin

ON THE RARE OCCASIONS WHEN American films take sex seriously, the result is usually sleep-inducing pseudo-erotica (Henry & June) or a grim lecture about the dangers of straying from home and hearth (last spring's Unfaithful). Loosely adapted from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, Secretary has a premise that could have been made to fit either category -- it's a love story about sadomasochism -- and sounds almost guaranteed to result in something pretentious or stupid. But if you look past its indulgence in the aggressive quirkiness that gives Sundance movies a bad name in some quarters, Secretary (which picked up a Special Jury Prize in Park City in January) offers something few films even attempt: an honest depiction of the role sex plays in everyday life as a source of empowerment and healing.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, a young woman who, since childhood, has used various forms of self-mutilation to cope with the pain of growing up with an alcoholic dad (Stephen McHattie) and a Stepford mom (Lesley Ann Warren) in a Florida suburb that looks like a leftover set from Edward Scissorhands. When she's caught in the act, Lee's parents mistake her cutting for a suicide attempt and she gets packed off to a mental institution. Emerging on the day of her sister's wedding -- which predictably compounds her self-esteem issues -- she goes back to her old ways while taking community-college typing classes and seeking pink-collar employment. Eventually, her job hunt takes her to the office of an attorney named E. Edward Grey (James Spader), whose shingle supports the weight of a "Secretary Wanted" sign massive and permanent enough to suggest that he goes through receptionists the way Bluebeard did wives.

Lee may sport a Little Purple Riding Hood rain poncho as she tentatively makes her way through Edward's cavernous office, but director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson otherwise soft-pedal the fairy-tale parallels to the developing relationship between Lee and her new boss. Edward assigns Lee one humiliating task after another (making her root through a dumpster for misplaced files he doesn't really need, etc.) and berates her with the ferocity of a drill instructor whenever she makes a typing error. Such relentless abuse magnifies Lee's curiosity about Edward into a full-blown crush and drives her to start making mistakes on purpose as the pair head deeper into master-slave territory.

It's not hard to guess how all this winds up, but it's the journey, not the destination, that makes Secretary interesting. Edward's curiosity about Lee mounts when he discovers her self-mutilation jones, and after he shocks her by intuiting what drives it (a desire to externalize internal pain), he tells her to stop in a tone that's equal parts stern command and Jedi mind trick. His authority gets the job done, but beneath it lies a tenderness surpassing anything offered by her meek J.C. Penney­clerk boyfriend, Peter (Jeremy Davies, equipped with a gruesome mullet and Fu Manchu mustache that can't begin to energize his tired sensitive-guy routine). Like Lee's mother, Peter is an annoying Indiewood stereotype, and both seem like major weaknesses at first. Rather than subtracting from the film's merits, however, the clichéd characters that surround Lee help us understand why she's drawn to Edward: He's the only person in her world with any mystery about him, and the only one remotely capable of responding to her compulsive behavior with sympathy. The clinical depictions of her cutting present the habit as a form of drug addiction -- Lee keeps a neatly organized sewing kit full of blades and pins that she fetishizes the way stoners do bongs and papers -- and Edward's sensitivity to what drives her helps provide Lee with the confidence to escape both her need to self-medicate and the overattentive grasp of her mother.

SECRETARY'S TREATMENT OF FEmale sexuality is as matter-of-fact as its handling of self-mutilation, and the key to both is Gyllenhaal's remarkable performance. Hitherto seen only in supporting parts (among them a scene-stealing turn as the acerbic sister of real-life brother Jake in Donnie Darko), she approaches her first leading role with a self-consciousness that makes the movie all the more believable. She's asked to do a lot of things that would make other rising stars recoil -- a number of masturbation scenes, in addition to some demanding nudity -- and is always completely relaxed and in character. The organic expressiveness of her face would have made her a superstar in the silent era. With it, she imbues Lee with a complexity often missing from the script, responding to Edward's demands with a believable combination of fear, confusion and subdued excitement. The depth of Gyllenhaal's characterization prevents Lee from ever becoming a mere fantasy object, and her natural contradictions (which stretch rules to which most screenwriters rigidly adhere) make her one of the most fully realized female characters in recent memory.

As Lee and Edward's relationship becomes more explicitly sexual, the film veers further and further away from "erotic" conventions. The inevitable couplings are clinical and starkly lit, hinting that the real love story is between Lee and herself: When Edward caresses her self-inflicted scars, she finds herself feeling beautiful for the first time. Edward, too, comes to terms with himself, burying his own masochistic streak when Lee offers him validation. Alas, Spader's iffy performance (vacant enough to suggest that he may have been cast merely for the comfort with explicit sex scenes he displayed in Crash, White Palace and other films) makes his journey less compelling. Still, it culminates in a moment that verges on breathtaking. "We can't do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week," gasps Edward, possessed by guilt as he looks for a way to bail on the ethically challenging relationship. "Why not?" replies Lee with a playful smile that makes the line almost as giddy and liberating as Joe E. Brown's immortal response to Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot.

Like many features derived from short stories, Secretary is less an adaptation of its source than a new narrative extrapolated from it. In the Gaitskill story, the narrator stops working for the lawyer after a sticky encounter that's the basis of one of the film's most memorable scenes, then passes up an opportunity to scuttle his bid for public office by refusing to spill the beans to a reporter who wants to bring him down. The moral -- basically, that it's okay for women to enjoy getting spanked -- is perfectly valid if hardly groundbreaking. Same goes for that of the film version, which argues that there's someone for everybody and that great sex with someone you love can be better than therapy. But because Shainberg and Wilson refuse to mock Lee and Edward's offbeat desires and don't shy away from presenting sex as the messy, sometimes scary enterprise we're all familiar with, the message rings true, and Gaitskill's point gets reinforced in the bargain. Secretary is very much a fantasy -- even more so than in the '80s when Gaitskill published her story, now that sexual-harassment suits are an established part of the landscape -- but its candor and generosity make it one that many will be eager to believe in.

SECRETARY | Directed by STEVEN SHAINBERG | Screenplay by ERIN CRESSIDA WILSON based on the story by MARY GAITSKILL Produced by SHAINBERG, ANDREW FIERBERG and AMY HOBBY | Released by Lions Gate Films | At Laemmle's Sunset 5, Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 20
  2. Thu 21
  3. Fri 22
  4. Sat 23
  5. Sun 24
  6. Mon 25
  7. Tue 26

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office Report

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Slideshows

  • 20 Neo-Noir Films You Have to See
    The Voice's J. Hoberman was more mixed than most on Sin City when he reviewed it in 2005, but his description of the film as "hyper-noir" helps explain why this week's release of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has us thinking back on the neo-noir genre. Broadly speaking, neo-noir encompasses those films made outside of film noir's classic period -- the 1940s and '50s -- that nevertheless engage with the standard trappings of the genre. As with most generic labels, there isn't some universal yardstick that measures what constitutes a neo-noir film: Where the genre might begin in the '60s with films like Le Samourai and Point Blank for one person, another might argue that the genre didn't find its roots until 1974's Chinatown. Our list falls closer to the latter stance, mainly featuring works from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Though a number of the films mentioned here will no doubt be familiar to readers, it's our hope that we've also highlighted several titles that have been under-represented on lists of this nature. --Danny King

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.

Now Trending