Secretary (2002, Steven Shainberg)

The Shortbus dictum applies here. We have substantial criticisms of this movie, but we also applaud its existence! It’s great to see a film that takes the idea of BDSM and kink seriously, not as an aside or a one-off immature joke, and especially one that casts it as a lifestyle choice of a sympathetic character — even if her motives for reaching it (to prevent cutting herself) are a bit sketchy and not terribly tuned in with reality. The problems with Secretary are not minor — they’re glaring, in fact, but the film has attained its life as a result not just of its two excellent lead performances but equally due to the dearth of sex-positivity in American cinema. Until we loosen the fuck up in this country, we are bound to encounter the paradox of sexually mature films being so rare that they praise they earn from more liberated circles is virtually automatic.

That shouldn’t discourage you from seeing Steven Shainberg’s film, which has much to appreciate: the world of Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a lonely woman working hard to put herself back together after a stint in a mental institution, is visually striking — nearly blinding with vibrant color. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson is wise to maintain the independence of her central character while indulging that character’s sadomasochistic attraction, and moreover to coyly base the structure of the film on The Graduate, only with the central conceit that Ben would have asserted himself and fought to maintain his relationship with Mrs. Robinson. The film has little interest in typical social mores as defined in Hollywood cinema, opting for broader ideas about what happiness and sexual fulfillment mean.

That liberated amorality calls back wonderfully to the films of Ealing Studios in the late ’40s (an illusion helped along by the quaint degree to which cell phones seem not yet to exist in the picture, an illusion still faintly possible to put across in 2002), here in the service of people who are really doing nothing wrong but would nevertheless be seen as disgusting and dirty by a fair proportion of the potential audience. Unlike those films, though, Secretary seems woefully uninterested in cutting loose to discover the mischievous fun in its subject matter; with the exception of a cheerful montage that features Lee in various contorted, submissive positions, it’s all very Serious. While that’s appropriate within a movie whose undercurrent is really the acquisition of respect for BDSM practices, it also ignores — like virtually all American films, it sometimes seems — the simple truth that sex, beyond all the personal psychodramas and biological duties it entails, is supposed to be, uh, fun.

Lee does seem to be having fun, as is her dubiously unprofessional new boss Mr. (fifty shades of) Grey (James Spader), who hires her to offer discipline, spankings, “permission” to take walks on her own. But as the film goes on, its preponderance of new age clichés becomes more troublesome, and Gyllenhaal is faced with the embarrassment of facing the camera with hodgepodge nonsense speeches that grow ever more insufferable, breathy stuff about “every cut” meaning “something” and much ado about “grass.” A lot of this likely made more sense in the source material, a short story by Mary Gaitskill, but Wilson and Shainberg make the egregious error of defining their two lead characters in too disparate a fashion. Mr. Grey is ambiguously and masterfully written, his actions providing all necessary context, but Lee remains mostly a character defined by prose: her thoughts and actions are excessively explained by voiceover. It’s difficult to ignore that the murkiness of her transition seems to follow a general pattern of flawed, complex female characters created by women who are then placed into movie world by male directors. Shainberg’s distance from the material is tangible at times.

The last third of the film contains most of its gravest mistakes. The situation escalates in screenwriterly fashion and everything flies off the handle, with attempts at surrealism that are off-rhythm from the rest of the film. We’re meant to believe that the news media takes a great interest in Lee’s attempts to regain the interest of Mr. Grey, whose sexual interest in her seemed to subside earlier in the film, one jerkoff session aside. Though the conclusion is pertinent and agreeably optimistic, it also seems overwrought, achieved in an exaggeratedly flowery manner, almost as if it’s occurring inside Lee’s head. Which, again, calls into question and derails the entirety of the rest of the film — it’s just off-model enough to cause questions to be asked, not to genuinely feel different from what’s come before. And the grass, man. The grass is a problem.

See Secretary, though, particularly if you’re interested in its subject matter, but otherwise for the two outstanding lead performances, which are the true art of the film. James Spader is devilishly funny and ruthless as always, and Gyllenhaal, given the chance to really work through a role, something that’s happened all too rarely to her (remember how criminally she was wasted in The Dark Knight?), is simply brilliant, embodying every bit of this difficult and somewhat underwritten role perfectly. If the whole premise turns you off, you’ll still be charmed by her, and it will make you think twice about your prejudices. Which, come to think of it, may mean that the movie serves its purpose entirely.

[Just want to mention, this was written three years ago — long before Secretary was re-marketed on the basis of its similarities to Fifty Shades.]

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