Yep, it’s the year’s much-anticipated, much-discussed S&M romantic comedy. Is it worth the wait? And worth the discussion? Yes, and no.
As a piece of writing, the movie is frequently fascinating. The acting by the two leads could not be better: James Spader handles an impossible role, bringing a depth I’d never have guessed he could muster; and Maggie Gyllenhaal — after smaller memorable turns in Cecil B. Demented and Donnie Darko — emerges as a star in one sweeping move. With all this going for the film, it would seem that Secretary should be a shoo-in as one of the best pictures of the year — and, even though it’s a good movie, it isn’t quite all that.
I’m not sure exactly what’s missing here, but it seems to be a case of everyone thinking that the subject matter is so very interesting and unusual that it’s all the film needs. To some degree, that’s true, but that mentality sometimes threatens to turn this little movie into My Big Fat Spanking Wedding.
True, director Shainberg has his moments — most memorably the nearly surreal image of Gyllenhaal in a bathtub of opaque white water — but he’s mostly content to have his camera sit back and record the events, letting the first-rate acting and Amy Danger’s gorgeous and clever production design do all the work. This may not be such a bad thing, to judge by Shainberg’s attempt at a fantasy sequence, which looks like leftover footage from a student film; yet it makes for a movie that seems somehow lazy. (It’s also distracting that the film is set in Florida, since, last I knew, Florida didn’t have mountains and it didn’t have front and rear license plates — both of which appear in the film’s rendition of the state.)
At the same time, we have the movie’s cheerfully cheeky handling of decidedly tricky subject matter. An S&M romantic comedy isn’t exactly normal fare — it’s at least a couple of light years removed from Doris Day and Rock Hudson … or is it? In the world of Secretary, there’s not all that much difference, apart from the specifics: Masochist meets sadist, masochist loses sadist, masochist gets sadist. That’s either another case of laziness, a case of being afraid to go too far or, just possibly, an incredibly subversive act — depending on how you care to read the film. For me, it’s a combination of all three.
If you go to see Secretary knowing that it’s about a sado-masochistic relationship between a lawyer and his secretary, there’s not much chance you’re going to be shocked by anything that happens in it. In other words, once you get past the premise, the only shock value lies in the fact that there isn’t any shock value. And it’s hard to deny that normalizing the relationship between a dominating, sadistic boss and a masochistic employee is shocking. And Secretary is a case of normalizing the relationship, not trivializing it. Oh, sure, there are a few gags that poke good-natured fun at the couple’s excesses (notably Spader putting a saddle on Gyllenhaal and popping a carrot in her teeth!), but these are cleverly intentional laughs designed to make us not chuckle in the wrong places. The tactic works.
The film finally puts forth the idea that the relationship the pair enjoys is far less damaging for either of them than the private hells they were living in prior to meeting one another. I suppose you could even call it life-affirming in a “nor’ by nor’west” manner, as Shakespeare once put it. If the film trivializes anything, it’s the psychological backgrounds of its main characters. Gyllenhaal’s Lee Holloway is given some sketchy possible reasons for her quirks (notably, an alcoholic father), but they’re not terribly convincing. Spader’s E. Edward Grey is given an ex-wife he’s so terrified of that he hides from her whenever she arrives in his office, but what this has to do with his sadistic leanings is anybody’s guess — except that the submissive Holloway is the polar opposite of the domineering ex-wife.
The strength of the film truly lies in the performances. With little to work from, Gyllenhaal and, especially, Spader manage to create fully formed characters who engage our sympathy when, by all rights, they probably oughtn’t. On the surface, Spader’s character should seem pretty despicable — the sadism to one side, there’s the question of sexual harassment in the workplace — but he doesn’t. He’s sad, scared, lost and at war with himself — and it’s more Spader that conveys this than anything in the script. Clearly, Grey is more out of whack than his recently institutionalized companion. Moreover, he may be the dominant partner in their fantasy world, but she’s ironically the aggressor in every other capacity.
The performances alone make Secretary a must-see, even when the film doesn’t quite live up to them.