as much about spanking as "Moby Dick" is about whaling.
errors and all
aren't many films involving sadomasochism that I wouldn't beat off
I'm thinking of Kim Basinger in "9-1/2 Weeks,"
provocatively blindfolded and teased with ice cubes by Mickey Rourke;
Madonna, as a sadomasochistic murderer in "Body of Evidence,"
dripping hot wax on the bare chest of Willem Dafoe; Corinne Clery
in the soft-core French adaptation of "The Story of O,"
receiving a flogging from Anthony Steel; or Bulle Ogier as a dominatrix
introducing Gerard Depardieu to the ways of sexual dominance in
These scenes are prurient, hypercolor pinups tacked
to our more carnal, pleasure-seeking sensibilities. They're titillating,
curious and as adventuresome as we feel comfortable with
a kind of burlesque entertainment that rubs up against our erogenous
But genital close-ups, engorged soundtracks and lax
mouths are as predictably static as flipping through Hustler. There's
a lot of show, but hardly any telling of how or why it feels good.
It's fun; stylistic jerk-off material for the sexually experimental,
the open-minded, or anyone.
and Gyllenhaal: pushing limits.
Likewise, it's easy to roll an eye at the seemingly kinky, gratuitous
S/M scenes in "Secretary." And, depending on who you are,
just as easy to yawn and head for the exit. We're talking generous
spankings, office masturbation complete with perfect, jagged moans
and sex toys you could purchase at a tack-and-saddle shop.
But "Secretary" is as much about spanking as "Moby
Dick" is about whaling. And the focus of the film isn't all
Directed by Steven Shainberg and expanded by Erin Cressida Wilson
from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, "Secretary" is one
of the few films that rides the context of S/M while employing it
as a vehicle for empowerment, psychic relief and intimacy. The film
also addresses such rare Hollywood themes as self-mutilation and
the tenderness involved in the S/M dynamic, without leaning toward
clinical case study.
This is a bold, sweet and often comic love story, unafraid to push
the limits of what is emotionally and sexually normal.
Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a fearless performance as Lee Holloway,
a worried young woman with a thing for cutting herself, who has
just been released from a mental hospital. Lee's pain and youthful
fragility are palpable as she arrives home to an alcoholic dad,
high-strung suburban mom and unavailable newlywed sister.
trading knowing glances and provocative smirks.
Despite her emotional discomfort and relapse into self-mutilation,
Lee displays a tentative strength as she applies for the position
of secretary at the law office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader).
Mr. Grey, with his organized stash of red pens, elaborate indoor
biosphere, and terse, bug-eyed persona, is a delightful obsessive-compulsive
ready to explode (or implode). It's his expressive face and tight-laced
hands that suggest a bottled vulnerability not unlike that of his
The majority of the film tracks the growing intimacy between Lee
and Mr. Grey, as the two embark on a master-slave relationship that,
at first, seems a shocking display of power imbalance.
Mr. Grey orders her to prepare his coffee, reset his mousetraps,
dig through the trash for a file he already has. Lee passively sniffs
and plays with her hair while submitting to each of these outrageous
orders. All the while they trade knowing glances and provocative
Before long, spelling errors elicit enthusiastic paddlings and
a mutual crush becomes apparent. By all accounts and purposes this
would rattle any sexual-harassment attorney, but because this film
is more surreal fable than terse account of office S/M, there's
a delicate balance in place.
While Lee readily submits to her boss's demands, spankings and
diatribes, Mr. Grey anoints his own self-loathing by denying himself
all forms of human contact. Lee and Mr. Grey are equal parts dominant
and submissive. And their relationship intensifies through a mutual
understanding of one another's pain and vulnerability benefiting
them both in the end.
Lee's transformation is most notable. Once coy and nervous, she
becomes controlled and confident in her newly appointed position.
She sheds her drab secretary attire and is immediately more erect
and vibrant. She begins to feel understood.
In a particularly touching scene, Mr. Grey orders Lee to stop cutting
herself while surprising her with an empathy that marvels Robin
Williams and Matt Damon's characters in "Good Will Hunting."
Through this overt tenderness, Lee is finally able to access the
emotional relief that she requires.
Mr. Grey, more fragile than ferocious, goes through his own transformation
as the film winds toward a pastel-colored ending that's almost too
good to be true, but not implausible given the surreal parameters.
a special award winner at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival for
The ending may be one of the more deliberate and well-thought-out
scenes in the film. Those familiar with Gaitskill's story by the
same title will notice that Shainberg's characters achieve the intimate
bond and connection that Gaitskill's characters struggle to locate
but rarely find within the same context.
Through Lee and Mr. Grey's complex ebb-and-flow courting waltz,
"Secretary" is like the cat that swipes your hand, retreats,
wraps around your ankle, retreats again, then ultimately decides
to curl up in your lap.
And in the end, the film is a celebratory gesture of tolerance
Not only does it vindicate left-of-center behavior by highlighting
its most human qualities, it also allows its characters, especially
Lee, to emerge totally self-actualized and even normal beautiful
scarred torso, spelling errors, and all.