Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Now playing at the Nick in Santa Cruz, Secretary is directed by
Steven Shainberg and adapted from a short story by Mary Gaitskill.
You can tell that this was a story first-and written by a woman
at that-because of its psychological complexity and the way it
focalizes plausibly through the main character, Lee Holloway,
played by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Screen writer Erin Wilson has also
done a great job of preserving that complexity, simultaneously
allowing the characters to retain some of their opacity, which
American movies so often cannot bear to do when confronted with
Lee-a self-cutter-has just been released from a mental hospital,
where she checked in because one time she cut too deeply. When
she returns home, we see why: her mother is a wreck, her father
a drunk. Her parents, together with her newly married sister who
continues to live on the compound, create a stressful and smothering
atmosphere of enforced leisure and helplessness for Lee. So she
decides to take typing lessons. She's an excellent typist-in fact,
she's good at everything that involves creating excessive order
out of chaos-and decides to apply for a job. She gets one with
Mr. Grey (James Spader), a young lawyer permanently in need of
a secretary. The sign outside his office is menacingly permanent,
the position's vacancy signaled by turning on or off the lights
around the sign.
One way to talk about what happens next is to say that submissive
meets dominant (masochist meets sadist) and the story moves on
from there. But that would be, I think, too simple, for the vectors
of agency and power shift uneasily between them as they develop
their decidedly non-normative yet remarkably chaste (up to a point)
There's a kind of faux-gothic atmosphere around the law office,
and a Jane Eyre-ish feel to Lee's adventure, if you can imagine
Lee as both Jane and the locked-up wife. With a title like Secretary
and the theme of dominance and submission, you know the movie's
got to be satire-alternately funny, grotesque, and critical. But
the movie takes a sort of surprising turn, one that diminishes
its comedy, blunts its critique, but also opens up serious possibilities
for human transformation and redemption, from within the perversions
and imperfections that shape the contours of many lonely people's
Still, part way through the movie, the narrative resorts to voice-over-Lee's-as
though it lacked confidence in the film's ability to convey the
subjective sequence of events through image, action, and dialogue.
And indeed, there's a lot we don't understand, even with the voice-over
to guide us. We never learn why Mr. Grey is desperately terrified
of relationships, or why his ex-wife turns him into a cowering
submissive-aspects of his character that seem to clash with his
presentation as a sadist. To the movie's credit, if he is a sadist,
then all this withholding of information is perfectly in character.
It reminds me of the joke about what the masochist says to the
sadist: "beat me," and what the sadist replies: "no."
Here, the audience is the masochist, while the movie itself turns
out to be the sadist. We also never learn why, all of a sudden,
Lee identifies as sexually kinky (seeking out personal ads to
respond to), and how she gains so much confidence in her identity
But she does, and we applaud the transformation, even though it
forces the plot to cram itself uncomfortably into the genre of
figuratively sado-masochistic--that is, regular old heterosexual--romance,
replete with its oppressively normative endings, from the Griselda
story to Jane Eyre.
The movie Secretary made me want to read the story. Gaitskill
was clearly on to something, and that something is scandalous
and tender all at once. The movie conveys this too, however imperfectly.
Secretary is trying to say something true, and perhaps new, about
love, and even though it fails, it's a worthwhile experiment.
Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang,
this is Carla Freccero.