Secretary (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Secretary is just your regular, garden-variety romantic comedy with heavy doses of S&M/B&D. For those used to Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks exchanging chaste kisses, the content of this motion picture is going to seem awfully far out on the proverbial limb. The movie enters a realm where few non-porn films venture, and comes across as darkly funny, energetic, and surprisingly gentle. Part of the reason that Secretary succeeds is that it doesn't treat S&M relationships only as the butt of jokes or purely for their shock value - when we laugh, it's because the director intended us to laugh, not because we're uncomfortable or being exposed to a dirty little secret. While being aware of the absurdity of an S&M relationship, filmmaker Steven Shainberg (director of 1996's Hit Me) recognizes that there are legitimate psychological reasons why people engage in this behavior. He is also careful not to make the actions of the characters too extreme.

The film opens by introducing the protagonist, Lee Holloway (as portrayed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in a scintillating, star-making turn). Lee has just been released from a mental institution where she was treated for her self-mutilation tendencies. Whenever the stress in her life becomes unbearable, she removes a sharp object from a small bag she carries and opens a wound on her thigh. No sooner has Lee emerged from treatment than her father's drinking binge veers her back towards the edge. In an attempt to fend off her condition, she decides to look for a job, and finds employment for a stern, emotionally closed-off lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader, taking his sex, lies, and videotape personality to the next level).

At first, Lee's job entails little more than the daily rigors expected of a secretary - answering the phones, typing letters, and so forth. Gradually, however, Edward becomes more domineering in reprimanding Lee for typos, and, on one occasion, when his anger at her errors results in a spanking session, both Lee and Edward realize they have stumbled upon a taboo desire that fulfills them both. However, while Lee relishes her part as the submissive (to the point where she intentionally makes mistakes so she can be "corrected"), Edward is tormented by his inability to give up his addiction to domination. Only when Lee begins to express genuine feelings for Edward does he become frightened enough to put an end to the non-business aspects of their relationship. Lee is crushed - and realizes that she loves Edward.

Secretary is less about sex than it is about human interaction outside of what society deems normal. Through S&M, Lee finds a cure for her self-mutilation and a reason to go to work every day. Edward, however, is terrified of his own desires - frightened that someone might find out, yet unable to stop. More than the S&M, however, Edward is scared of Lee - in particular, what she feels for him and where his emotions for her are leading him. The issue of traditional sex isn't introduced until relatively late in the film (although you don't have to be a psychologist to determine that the spankings stand in for intercourse), and it isn't until the closing moments that Gyllenhaal has a nude scene.

Tone is critical, and that's where Shainberg hits pay dirt. Secretary has enough genuine laughs to eliminate the potential twitters and snickers, and it treats Edward and Lee as people. We end up caring about what happens to these two individuals, even as we smile and laugh at their antics. It occurs to me that it would be very easy to make a movie like this judgmental and mean-spirited, but Shainberg deftly avoids that trap. Some of the credit must go to Spader, who is his usual solid self, and Gyllenhaal, who is amazing, but the director knows exactly where he wants his characters to go, and successfully takes them there. Secretary is a romantic comedy for those who go into sugar shock from the usual entries into the genre. Also, unless your partner has some unusual proclivities, this might not be the best choice for a "date movie."

Secretary (United States, 2002)

Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2002-09-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1