Secretary (2002)

Secretary (2002) first published by Movie Gazette

In the typical romantic comedy, a woman meets her ideal man, and after being separated from him by a range of comic trials, eventually marries him, with the prospect of happiness for ever after. So Steven Shainberg‘s directorial debut Secretary belongs to the same genre as, say, The Wedding Planner (2001) or Maid in Manhattan (2002), but it is a far darker, kinkier affair than your average rom com.

Secretary begins with Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) performing a range of secretarial duties – stapling, paperwork, tea-making – with her hands bound in the kind of yoke that can only be bought in a specialist sex shop. Cut to six months earlier, and Lee is fresh out of a mental institution, and back to life with her alcoholic father and neurotic mother and nice-but-dull boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies), so that she is immediately driven into her old routines of self-harming.

Lee is gawky, awkward and shy, but it is obvious from the illustrated butterflies which decorate her self-harming kit that she wants her life to undergo some kind of metamorphosis – and this she finds in a new secretarial post with lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Although the decidedly odd Grey asks her inappropriate questions about her personal life in the job interview, and is inordinately harsh in his criticisms of her work and her behaviour, Lee loves her new job and her imperious employer; and when one day, after finding an error in her typing, Grey invites her into his office and thrashes her buttocks until they’re blood red, Lee realises that she has found her ideal ‘position’. Soon she and Grey are engaged in a full-time sadomasochistic affair, but when Grey gets cold feet and tries to renormalise their relationship, Lee sets out to win back the man she wants, with strings attached – as it becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is boss in this power-based relationship.

It is no coincidence that the fey soundtrack of Secretary is by David Lynch’s regular composer Angelo Badalamenti, and that Lee and Grey are working on something called ‘the Lynch papers’ – for the spirit of Lynch casts a dark shadow over the strange, dreamlike quality of this film. Secretary is crammed with surreal details: the illuminated ‘Secretary Wanted’ sign outside Grey’s office is turned on and off like a motel’s ‘Vacancy’ sign; the over-domesticated Peter takes Lee out on a dinner-date to a laundromat; Lee’s mother (Lesley Ann Warren) parks all day outside the office waiting to drive Lee home; Grey tends Lee in his home on a bed of grass. All this leaves the viewer with the impression that Secretary is open to more than just a literal interpretation. For it is all at once a post-feminist fairy tale about the flowering self-realisation of a young woman, a parable of therapeutic recovery, and an allegory of office politics – but ultimately Lee seems far easier to tie up than to pin down.

Quirky, funny and challenging.

Summary: Guy meets girl, guy punishes girl, girl meets self, and they all live happily ever after.

© Anton Bitel