Why I Love… #75: Secretary

Year: 2002

Director: Steven Shainberg

Stars: Maggie Gyllenhaal (Lee Holloway), James Spader (Mr Grey), Jeremy Davies (Peter), Lesley Ann Warren (Joan Holloway), Stephen McHattie (Burt Holloway), Patrick Bauchau (Dr. Twardon)

Genre: Romance / Drama / Comedy

In light of a conspicuous new release in cinemas, now seems like an apt time to unpack the virtues of Steven Shainberg’s delightful and wise ‘cult’ romantic comedy Secretary, a film which explores with eloquence and poignancy how a BDSM relationship can develop lovingly, with mutual respect and satisfaction, fulfilling needs in both parties.

It tells the story of Lee Holloway; a self-harming wallflower released from the institution where her family placed her, trying now to find her own place in the world. While her home life remains fraught with distrust from her mother and sad alcoholism from her father, she trains as a typist and applies for the role of secretary to the meticulous and equally squirrelly Mr. Grey (yes, Mr Grey).  She appears seemingly new to the world; learning the ropes in so many ways, just striving with curiosity and determination to please Mr. Grey and to satisfy her own distinctly measured sense of accomplishment. Lee is a wonderful gift for Maggie Gyllenhaal, who takes the character and colours her deeply and intricately. There are more than fifty shades here, if you’ll excuse me.

Though she is attempting earnestly to put her self-harming days behind her, that yearning for control and comfort still ricochets back to her when external stressors apply. This is noticed by Mr Grey (James Spader, who between sex lies and videotapeCrash and this makes a strong case for the most progressive leading man of his generation). Grey is curious about Lee. At first out of simple attraction and loneliness, but as he comes to learn of her sewing kit, he astutely senses the damaged parts of her, and comes to wonder if he might not be able to help her. With his attention and his encouragement, Lee grows more assertive, yet the dance they do in getting to know one another increasingly starts to skirt the realms of BDSM.

It’s a flirtation that works both ways. And while Lee is most enamoured by Grey when he grows dominant over her and gives her instructions, he is self-conscious about his enjoyment of it. She, in turn, shows confidence in exploring and coaxing him into revealing his dominant side. They are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they work together in a sort of undulating cycle. It is here that the film cultivates the warmth, care and love between the two which makes them greater together than they are apart. Secretary is a superb, fiercely intelligent but wholly empathic examination of how such a relationship can be therapeutic and beneficial, instead of abusive and manipulative.

No small thanks, then, go to Erin Cressida Wilson who wrote the film specifically for director Steven Shainberg; these characters feel genuine and heartfelt, and the film’s keen desire to illuminate and do justice to their types raises it above so much lesser material. It’s a deft piece of work, not least in that it doesn’t feel preachy or patronising of its viewer at any time. To those uninitiated in these psychological complexities, it may only be afterward that the lesson is learned. Instead of lecturing, Wilson’s script lives in the moment, injecting comedy and farce and allowing its two leads their own separate vulnerabilities. The audience can sympathise with both Lee and Mr Grey. This compassion and understanding underpins the film, which Shainberg delivers to the screen in rich colours and some involving flourishes.

The economy of empathy in Secretary is so sharp. Consider Lee’s box of cutting tools; frozen in childhood it speaks of the lost time she’s endured.  Her mother hiding the knives in a cabinet of shame locked with a childishly pink bicycle lock. The Lee of the film’s beginning is framed by naivety (the red-riding hood motif of her first walk to Grey’s office?). By the end she is fully realised, fully developed in her relationship not just with Mr Grey, but with herself. Speaking of Mr Grey, its worth contrasting his beginning with his conclusion. Lee is not the only one to develop throughout the film. Grey has evidently suffered a personal setback when we first meet him (something insinuated further throughout the film). He is lonesome. When addressing Lee, he is meticulous with his words, scholarly, succinct but slightly apologetic in tone. Yet, crucially, wonderfully specific.

The accoutrements of his office suggest fetishistic tendencies; the darts he uses to dial his phone and of course the orchids he tends. Yet he seems to be wrestling with the shame of his desires. Lee encourages him, coaxes him out of himself, teaches him that it’s all right to be the man he is. He is genuinely touched by her commitment to him (speaking both in general and specifically about her bridal hunger strike in the film’s third act). She gives him the strength to be himself. Spader plays all of this very generously.

Other elements cocoon Lee and Mr Grey pleasurably. The decor of Grey’s office is gorgeously inviting; all elegant dark wood panels and intense floral wallpaper. Shainberg takes the time to establish it as a continuous space (not least in the teasing opening shot). Then there is Angelo Badalamenti’s jazzy score; light and loose and playful. It creates for these two a playground in which to establish themselves. The film takes place in an intimate, erotic arena. A fetishistic snowglobe.

But not always. The further through the film you get, the more invasive outside elements become. When we break from the office for Lee’s scenes with ineffectual suitor Peter (the undervalued Jeremy Davies), it provides context and breathing space, but it also underlines how much we want to go back into the office with them. Eventually, when Lee takes up Grey’s test and clamps herself behind his desk, any intrusion feels aggravating. When Peter bursts in, the audience feels he is out-of-place. His interference with Lee here feels grossly unacceptable.

These stressors from the outside provoke the audience, but Shainberg is generous enough to reward us. Having gone through her ordeal to prove her loyalty, Grey takes Lee home and bathes her with honour and love. Here is the care and adoration conspicuously lacking from, yes, Fifty Shades Of Grey. The balance. His reverence is as romantic as any other gesture your could itemise…

Okay. I’m going to have to stop skirting around why this film and why now.

I rewatched Secretary in preparation for watching Fifty Shades and it turned out to ultimately underline that story’s failings. While the two are very, very different and not really comparable,  Secretary soared in my estimation. I’d been fond of it, but not gone back to the well often. I realised on watching it again that I probably hadn’t revisited it in 5 or 6 years. An oversight I’m glad I corrected. It’s never seemed as good as it does now, or as vital. Fifty Shades may well serve a positive role despite its problems, in that it opens the door for mainstream cinema to explore the complexities of sexuality further (and hopefully a little wiser). At our most optimistic, then, we can hope for more movies like Secretary.  Until these superior films materialise, please, visit Secretary. I’ll reiterate my words from my previous review; if you want to investigate modern film and BDSM, this is the experience you ought to have. Sorry. End of soapboxing.

I’m not particularly inclined personally to BDSM but, with help from this film, I can understand it. I’m not a cutter, or self-harmer but, with help from this film, I can understand it. Roger Ebert once called cinema an ’empathy machine’. Secretary is a textbook example of what he meant.

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