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4. Secretary (2002), dir. Steven Shainberg

A friend lent me this, and it lay around unwatched in my lounge for about a fortnight because it looked kind of dire from the box. What I was getting from the packaging was 'rom-com with a mild male-fantasy-style kink twist'. But now that I've actually sat down and watched it, I think it's only fair to say that it was quite a lot more character-driven and intelligent than that would suggest.

The blurb on the back of the box reads as follows:
"When Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets a job as a secretary in a small firm she does her best to please. But her new boss (James Spader) finds fault with her typing and administers a rather unconventional kind of punishment. Soon Lee realises that she is not only becoming the perfect secretary, but also the woman she always wanted to be."
But what that doesn't really convey is that the film isn't just 'secretary and her boss start an S&M relationship' (which would be quite dull and almost certainly misogynistic and shot through with clichés and moral hypocrisy), but that it is also a story of genuine character growth, focused above all on the female character (Lee). In fact, both she and the lawyer who hires her (E. Edward Grey) are portrayed as quite troubled individuals at the point when their relationship begins. She comes from a dysfunctional family with a dangerously alcoholic father, has been cutting herself since her early teens, has spent time in an institution because of it, and has absolutely no self-confidence. He - well, we have less idea about exactly what is going on in his mind, because he isn't the main focus of the story, but we know that his previous marriage has failed in a very acrimonious way, and he is clearly quite uncomfortable with his sexual identity, breaking off the relationship with Lee part-way through the film (which is, of course, a typical rom-com trope) for this reason.

What Grey gives to Lee is a level of understanding and attention no-one has ever shown her before, and more importantly one which is focused on demanding perfection from her. That sounds kind of creepy, and would be in most relationships, but for the particular personality that is Lee, it liberates her from her own lack of self-confidence and helps her to discover that she can be strong and competent and even independent in a way she has never been before. Meanwhile, her obvious enjoyment of his dominance, and the steely determination she displays in submitting to him help him to reconcile himself to his (and her) sexuality, and realise that it can be something he takes honest pleasure in rather than having to hide it away and try to deny it. So they grow together, work out what they want from one another and each give something which the other was missing.

Around that strong central plot, there is a lot of intelligent detail and design, too. Grey's hobby, for example, is growing orchids, which means that he spends a lot of time near-obsessively spraying them with mist and clipping them, in a close parallel to the same kind of nurturing dominance that he also bestows on Lee. And there is all sorts of stuff about visibility and the male gaze, too. We frequently see him spying on her round corners while she is completely oblivious to this, establishing his voyeuristic interest in her. But this also gives her a kind of visibility which she has never really had before - and which is made explicit when he asks to take a photograph of her with his old-school Polaroid camera, and starts building up an album of images of her. At the end of the film, once they have established a happy relationship together, the final shot before the end credits is of her looking calmly, confidently and happily into the camera, as though meeting the voyeur's gaze and asking "Yes? And?"

But there were some things about the film I wasn't so keen on, and that includes the happily-ever-after ending, which managed to annoy me in spite of the final 'reverse gaze' shot. The conclusion is meant to be that Lee and Grey's relationship has blossomed into a rounded, permanent partnership, and that they have found ways to incorporate their S&M desires into it in ways that they are both happy with. Which is great, but I found it annoying that the closing scenes of their happy marriage also make it clear that while he is still working as a lawyer, she is now a stay-at-home housewife who doesn't have a job. It seemed a bit of a let-down after the obvious pride she had taken in finding that she could be confident and efficient in a work situation as their relationship developed - and indeed puts her in much the same position as her obviously dysfunctional mother at the start of the film.

On the whole, though, not bad at all. It's just a pity that it is packaged and marketed as a less interesting film than it actually is.

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( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 19th, 2012 01:27 pm (UTC)
I too thought it was a much better film than I expected it to be. I wasn't expecting a fairly subtle and sympathetic depiction of their relationship.
Feb. 19th, 2012 01:31 pm (UTC)
I wouldn't watch Secretary for ages because of what I'd assumed about the content - totally not what I was expecting. It's really good to see the woman/the sub at the heart of the plot with a proper attempt to explain what she might be getting out of the situation instead of making her an accessory.

Do you think that showing her as a SAHM is a way of continuing to challenge people's assumptions about what independent women should be doing? Particularly after that scene with her in the wedding dress sitting in the office against a backdrop of people commenting on her behaviour. In a culture where most women have jobs and still do the bulk of the housework, maybe it's a way of continuing to show that she's unconventional, in a good way?
Feb. 19th, 2012 08:28 pm (UTC)
That's certainly a possible reading of the ending, but I don't think there's enough in the film to support it explicitly. We never see them discussing what she wants for her future after they are married, and given the negative way that her mother is portrayed earlier in the film, we're certainly primed to view staying at home as a conventional choice, and one which is liable to be unfulfilling.
Feb. 19th, 2012 01:46 pm (UTC)
This is one of my all-time favorite movies! The performances by Maggie Gyllenhall and James Spader are absolutely brilliant!
Feb. 19th, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this - I keep on getting put off by the way the film is packaged, but everyone keeps telling me it's better than you expect. I still haven't got around to watching it, though!
Feb. 19th, 2012 08:31 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that seems to be the common theme of the comments here! It looks like it was packaged and marketed with the hope of attracting the sort of viewers who would like a more mainstream take on an S&M workplace relationship - and maybe that worked in terms of bringing in the revenue. But unfortunately it seems to have alienated a lot of viewers who would actually enjoy the film in the process. :-/
Feb. 19th, 2012 04:58 pm (UTC)
Although not universally liked "Secretary" is a very popular film in the BDSM community for the positive portrail of the relationships.

Feb. 19th, 2012 06:28 pm (UTC)
One of the most common criticisms of the film is that there seems to be no mention of the BDSM community or "scene". If the characters were aware of it then they might have had a calmer life - but perhaps not such an interesting film.
Feb. 19th, 2012 08:35 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I think the point of the story is that neither character really has much awareness of their own sexuality, let along a wider 'scene' they could belong to, certainly at the beginning of the film. But we do see Lee reading a book at one point called 'How to come out as a dominant/submissive', and when Grey fires her, she also answers newspaper adverts from sadists looking for masochists, and hooks up with three of them - but finds the encounters unfulfilling. So in fact it isn't even accurate to say there's no mention of the BDSM community - it is just kind of tangential to the story which is being told.
Feb. 20th, 2012 09:10 am (UTC)
Good point. I had forgotten those incidents.
Feb. 20th, 2012 02:09 am (UTC)
Yes, I've only ever heard about it through friends in the BDSM community. (Which is why I've never watched it!)
Feb. 20th, 2012 09:12 am (UTC)
It was heavily advertised on the Tube when it came out - but I don't remember seeing any mention of it anywhere else.
Feb. 20th, 2012 11:32 pm (UTC)
And I don't go to London as often as I talk to BDSMers, which would explain why I only ever heard of it in that context.
Feb. 23rd, 2012 10:20 pm (UTC)
Let me, a silent viewer of your wonderful reviews and a truly passionate watcher of Secretary for almost a decade thank you for the amazing essay on a movie that is in my "must see" and "top five" lists since I've watched it for the first time soon after actually released. Yours and mine thoughts on the movie almost match and indeed you've just helped me to realize what I didn't like in the final scene: I had a feeling of something being wrong there but haven't got the point. Yes, she seems to be the housewife now. To keep my illusion of a really-and-truly happy ending I'd keep assuming she has found herself in some freelance activities or perhaps just has her shift the other day:))
Feb. 23rd, 2012 11:36 pm (UTC)
Cheers! Thanks for commenting, and I'm glad you liked my review. I join with you in imagining that in fact Lee has some kind of exciting and dynamic portfolio career by the end of the film which sometimes involves working from home. But yeah - what we see on screen does seem disappointing, especially by contrast with the scenes we see at the very beginning of the film and then again in the middle, where she is blissfully happy working away for him in her cuffs and spreader bar. I'd kind of hoped / assumed that's where they would be again at the end of the film, which is partly why the absence of that from the ending jarred so much.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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