Secretary’s opening-credits sequence shows a pixieish, composed young woman in heels, a black skirt, and a white shirt moving through an exotically painted and decorated suite of rooms, preparing for the day’s work. Angelo Badalamenti’s piano score muses in the background as she staples some papers, then pours and sugars a cup of coffee with a sly smile—while her hands are cuffed to an iron bar, which is attached to her neck with a thick metal collar.
The scene is funny and sexy, but not the way “funny and sexy” is used to describe cute, charged banter between unlikely but inevitable screen couples. Every game dip of the woman’s slim knees, the papers clamped between her teeth like a bit, calls up all kinds of dark, alluring transgressions—public and private, professional and personal—with a sunny little wink.
Based on Mary Gaitskill’s short story of the same name, Secretary is a grown-up comedy, as black as it is blue. Although its story is basically that of every romantic comedy—clamped-down people find release in one another—it looks and feels like something more shadowed and archaic, with an approach to its subject that is simultaneously sophisticated and playful. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is an immature, depressed mess from an impossible family who sublimates her rage with self-mutilation. Like many cutters, she has strong tendencies toward self-denial—a sort of anorexia of the soul, if not the body—and a powerful, persuasive eagerness to please. Upon her release from an institution, Lee finds life at home untenable and the attentions of unambitious high school pal Peter (Jeremy Davies) alarming. She seeks absorption into simple, boring work, which brings her to the offices of E. Edward Grey, attorney at law.
If her life outside is dreary reality, her new job offers that most terrifying and childish of escapes: the fairy tale. From the opening scene to Lee’s first glimpse of the building, rain-shrouded and tucked amid foliage like a woodsman’s cabin or a witch’s house, it’s clear that this place is going to be the site of a cathartic interior journey. She even approaches it in a Little Blue Riding Hood rain slicker. The routines of the office are a mystery that Lee faces with a child’s patience for mystery, striding through the trashed outer office with a bow at her neck and her eyes gleaming, expecting either to be eaten by a wolf or turned into a princess—or, as it turns out, both.
The wolf wears James Spader’s handsome pudding face and behaves with Christopher Walken’s numbed menace. The lawyer clearly has issues of his own—as well as obscure rituals and talismans that we glimpse in close-up but Lee’s feral, unworldly soul sniffs out behind the office walls. His self-loathing comes on like arrogance; he’s emotionally unreachable and therefore, along with a drawerful of red pens and a po-faced law clerk, another locked door in the
After a few weeks of near-implosive fury during which Grey seeks fault in Lee’s uninteresting but usually admirable work, he bends her over his desk and forces her to read a typo-ridden letter aloud while he spanks her hard and slow. The look on Lee’s face as she registers surprise, shock, outrage, titillation, relief, and sensual greed leaves Diane Lane’s kittenish post-nooner grimaces in Unfaithful in the dust.
The way director Steven Shainberg films it, S&M isn’t grown-up behavior, despite the erotic shapes it takes. It’s child’s play, ferocious and silly, requiring a trunkful of toys and a fertile imagination. A serious, artful look at adults drawn into a sadomasochistic relationship would have been a sodden thing, but Shainberg gives this absurd activity the quality of high camp, showing us how very funny all the props and role-playing can be.
Lee and Grey, two isolated creatures, conceive their own currency of affection in the absence of the usual ones—caresses, confessions, endearments. Shainberg, however, draws us so completely into their hermetic romance that their language of love not only is recognizable, but also seems more genuine than the pasta dinners and third-date couplings Lee shares with Peter. When Grey returns to the office after the young lovers’ climactic breakup and orders Lee to lean over and put her elbows on the desk, it’s a romantic conciliation George Cukor would have recognized.
There are two games at work in this set piece: one for us (how does Lee get from here to the there we caught a glimpse of earlier?) and one for her (how does she transform her new power to lure into the power to hold?). Unfortunately, Shainberg and co-adapter Erin Cressida Wilson have little fun with the rest of their slight story, burdening it with a drawn-out act of submissive devotion on Lee’s part that turns into a media circus and then further weighing it down with a blissful but never believable denouement.
Once the games are over, there’s little need to see Grey as being as perky now as he was tightly wound before. His psychology was never convincing in the first place, and a perky Spader is a freaky, unconvincing sight. Part of the problem is that Spader’s pervy characters are all tics and longing, but he’s never bothered to plumb their souls in any meaningful way. Spader is as Spader does, whether he’s inhabiting Gaitskill’s faceless Grey man or J.G. Ballard’s car-crash-obsessed James Ballard. Here, he does the unknowable, and that’s all she wrote.
But the story belongs to Gyllenhaal and her quicksilver face, the grooves below her nose making her monkeyish in one scene, the arabesquing line of her lips making her gloriously sensuous in the next. It’s a truism of S&M that the submissive has all the control, and the cozy cheer with which Lee settles into her post-secretarial life, still primed to serve her hard-working man, redeems both that cliche and the tangled storytelling it took to get her there. If Secretary doesn’t make her a star, somebody really does deserve a spanking. CP