Secretary

It's a lot, it's a lot, it's a lot--like life
★★★
☆☆
Released: 
2002
Director: 
Steven Shainberg
Starring: 
Maggie Gyllenhall, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren
The Setup: 
Woman enters into a BDSM relationship with her boss.
Discussion: 

This got a fair amount of attention and acclaim when it was out, and always sounded interesting, but I never got around to it. I ended up first watching the director's first film, Hit Me, an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, and now that I've seen them both, I can see that he has a very distinctive directorial style, and in this case, that may be not such a good thing, because something about the style says "amateur."

We open with Maggie Gyllenhaal walking around an office in a collar and restraining bar, preparing coffee and bringing in a letter while her hands are held out beside her shoulders. This is just to get us excited, since that won't happen until midway through the film. We now go back six months, when her character, Lee, is released from a mental hospital on the day of her sister's wedding. She was in there for her self-mutilation habit, and soon the stresses of the wedding cause her to go upstairs and pull out her trusty cutting kit. Let's not let it pass that it's a bit of a contrived coinkidink for her to be released on the day of her sister's wedding, and have to go straight from mental ward to bridal party. Anyway, soon Dad is getting drunk and hitting Mom and Lee is dealing with the stress by burning her inner thigh with a hot teapot. Mom is played by Penelope Ann Miller, but those who love her are advised not to get their hopes too high, as she has very little to do here.

At around 11 minutes there is a very bad editing mistake in which we are in a flashback, the day Lee was sent to the hospital, then find her looking through want ads, and it takes a second to realize that we've returned to the present day. She goes in for an interview with E. Edward Grey, played by James Spader, who is a lawyer who works in what looks like a converted farm building. This is all happening in Florida, by the way. He has a large office with a front reception room and rear office, long hallways separating the two, all painted green and deep pink. He also has a wooden sign out front that says "Secretary Wanted," with light bulbs around it that are lit when he is searching. Lee finds the former secretary walking out, and endures an odd interview with the extremely strange Edward. He says that she is closed off, like a wall, although Gyllenhaal hasn't been acting that way. She gets the job.

Soon we find him becoming testy with her over slight mistakes, and getting excited by making her do humiliating tasks, like climb in a dumpster to retrieve a file. He starts yelling at her more severely for typos. Soon his ex storms into the office, furious, demanding that he sign a settlement. She's not defined enough to add illumination to Edward's character, and she drops out of the movie soon enough. The office is also a constant source of confusion. It seems that the entire place is taken up by Edward's office, yet there are other people sometimes around, and other people sometimes in the bathroom, so that you're never really sure of the conditions in which this movie takes place. This is a good example of what marks this film as a bit amateur, as Shainberg doesn't think it's important to define the layout of the office and who might be there. But it matters a great deal to the audience, especially when you have S&M sex happening upstairs, but we can't tell if someone downstairs could possibly hear, or someone might walk in. When you see a stranger suddenly appear in the bathroom, you have a moment of "Who is that person? What are they doing there?" and this takes you out of the film.

SPOILERS > > >
At a certain point Edward yells at Lee, and she goes into the other room and cuts a chunk out of her skirt. He sees it, and calls her back in to yell at her about her appearance, which makes them both strangely eroticized. Then one day he calls her in, confronts her about her cutting, and tells her she'll never cut herself again. He then makes her bend over the desk, and spanks her. This goes on for a while, and we return to the point at which we began the film, with her walking around in a collar and restraints. This emerges as a bit of a misstep, because we can't tell how long the "glory" days of their relationship lasts, before it goes bad. A week? A few weeks?

Meanwhile, in here, Lee has also made a boyfriend, played by Jeremy Davies, who is there just enough to create complications for her. We see her trying to get him to spank her, to no avail. Meanwhile she is now purposely leaving typos in letters and being quite forward with Edward. Then Edward suddenly breaks off the relationship, and fires her. She is devastated. Her boyfriend proposes. She agrees. The day of the wedding, she runs off, in her wedding dress, to Edward's office. He is excited by her being there, and tells her to sit with her hands flat on the desk.

She does, and breaks off with the boyfriend like this, talks to her mother and sister and others like this, and Edward is often watching her and her devotion from outside. Soon she is on the news and there's a whole group of people camped outside the office. Edward finally comes, and says they can't play out their fantasy all the time, and she asks "Why not?" Next we see them at home (i.e. she has moved in), her sending him off to work, and taking a long look directly into the camera before the screen goes black.
< < < SPOILERS END

So when I'm painting there are often little problems I find in the painting, like the shadows are wrong or the lines don't make sense, and they might require quite a bit more work, and often I don't want to go back and do the extra work, and I tell myself "Well, people won't notice that, they'll be so swept away by the overall statement that they'll forgive these minor little issues." But then when I see mistakes like that in another painter or any other creative work, I'm reminded that people do notice, those mistakes do matter, and telling yourself that people will just be so swept up in the overall quality they'll forgive the details is just being lazy and perhaps a bit narcissistic. I have no idea what the story is here, but I'm guessing it's not too far off from that. There are little details--like who are the other people in the office? Isn't that kind of a strange layout and color scheme for a lawyer's office? Are secretaries applying all the time because there's a "Secretary Wanted" sign permanently out front? Not to mention the poor edits and unmotivated characters, and sheer amount of things that are just a bit off.

And there is enough interesting stuff in the story and psychology to almost make one overlook the flaws--as many did, when this film got some decent attention and acclaim while it was released. You have the generally unusual story, which counts for a lot, and its counterintuitive resolution of a woman finding satisfaction by subjugating herself (at least superficially) to a man, and a woman going to great lengths to pursue a man, where most stories are of men that have to change in pursuit of women. But in retrospect there's not a lot of meat to the story--the entire first half is just the slow build-up into their relationship--and the events of the second half go by so fast, and are so flimsily supported, they don't have the impact they should. Not to mention that the tone edges into quirky romantic comedy.

So, nice to have an interesting and unusual film on this topic, telling an unusual story. I just wish the execution was more polished.

Should you watch it: 

In retrospect, I might have been fine just reading about it.