Film Review Archive


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 psychological depth.

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) affair.

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 lives.

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 and desires.

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.