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Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Taking dictation and domination



Secretary

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Steven Shainberg
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

"Secretary" starts off like so many American indie films you've seen before. There's Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal from "Donnie Darko"), the film's heroine, a disturbed young woman who's being released from a mental hospital where she was committed for cutting herself with razors. When she returns to her picture-postcard suburban home, we see the madness behind the manicured lawns: Dad's an alcoholic and an incipient wife-beater; mom is in denial, over-chirpy and over-protective.

News photo
Maggle Gyllenhaal and James Spader in "Secretary"

Basically, your typical dysfunctional indie-film family in your usual suburban dystopia. We feel like we're in Todd Solondz-land ("Happiness," "Welcome To The Dollhouse"), where we're going to get a long, cynical laugh at how messed-up and disturbed these "normal" suburbanites truly are. This seems to be confirmed when Lee lands a secretarial job with a lawyer named E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a peculiar disciplinarian whose strict enforcement of office rules starts to veer into a kinky sort of dom-sub relationship with Lee.

By the time Grey is bending Lee over his desk preparing to spank her silly for a typo, we're primed to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But then, something weird happens, weirder than the notion of a boss ass-whupping his secretary: We start to see something of the true nature of this sort of "kinky" relationship, how it may, in fact, be giving these two complicated souls exactly what they need.

Not that there's anything wrong with a chuckle or two; Spader is in accentuated weirdo mode, playing Mr. Grey -- as Lee calls him -- with a twitchy nervousness that veers between an assured assertion of his dominant instincts and a tail-tucked-between-his-legs retreat from women with needs. Between "Sex, Lies, & Videotape" and "Crash," there's no actor out there whose mere presence hints so much at a libido hard-wired to the darker urges of the subconscious; this guy personifies perversity.

It's fascinating to watch how Grey reads Lee, though, studying her -- discreetly -- with all the attention he gives to the exotic flowers that grace his office garden. He hires Lee basically because she's the meek type that he can play his control games with -- she's a sharp contrast to his ex-wife, a stiletto-heeled dominatrix-type -- and after he notices the cuts on the backs of her thighs, he starts to give his impure urges a free rein.

But at the same time, he's also the one who pulls Lee out of her depression. Sniveling, unassertive, uncomfortable in her own body, Lee's a mess when she meets Grey, a girl for whom release from an asylum means only regret: "Inside life was simple. For that reason, I didn't want to leave." Grey's commands -- to improve her work, to speak with power in her voice, and to stop cutting herself -- serve two purposes: They fulfill his power trip, and make Lee more in control of her own life.

"You're a grown woman," insists Grey, seated a bit too close to Lee on the office sofa, "you don't need your mother to pick you up every day." His command to Lee to walk home alone prompts her to ditch her smothering mom, and strangely enough -- since she's more or less substituting a parental figure for an ineffective parent -- she starts to feel free. Free enough to realize that spanking actually turns her on, and free enough to realize that submission is her choice to make.

There's the irony and also the danger in this story; it's easy to see how some -- the PC, old-school feminists, and others who seek to deny the vast range in human behavior -- will find "Secretary" offensive, a tale that romanticizes what is basically workplace sexual harassment, while having its heroine find happiness under male control.

But that would be both over-generalizing the film's point, as well as underestimating the nuance of its themes. Some people do find S & M fulfilling, as a glance at any personals section will reveal, and "Secretary" insightfully dances around the reasons why.

Director Steven Shainberg has claimed that his life was changed when he saw David Lynch's "Blue Velvet." The influence is apparent -- in the score by Angelo Badalamenti, or the boudoirlike ambience of Grey's red-curtained office -- but "Secretary" maintains a much lighter tone, with nothing as hysterical or threatening as Dennis Hopper's character, Frank. (Jeremy Davies -- so good in "Solaris" -- gets to turn in another gentle freak performance, though, as Lee's equally neurotic semi-boyfriend.)

What Shainberg does share with Lynch is the desire not to make films about "men" and "women," but a particular man and woman: Therein lies the truth.

It's Gyllenhaal's film to sink or save, though, and she comes through with a winning, sympathetic portrayal that carries the viewer along. Her soft features are equally capable of rendering simpering self-negation, bemused arousal, and -- finally -- a determination to get what she wants, even if that's something no one else will understand. She's got a huge change to go through -- from a girl stuck in the neuroses of her childhood, to a fully formed adult with clearly defined desires -- but she pulls it off perfectly.

There's little that's overtly erotic about "Secretary," although the office spanking scene does seem to sync in with a common riff in Japan's collective eroi fantasies. The way in which the drudgery of office routine can be converted into a type of foreplay, however, is liberating. A red pen -- which Grey uses to highlight Lee's typos -- has never seemed so sexy.



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