dir: Steven Shainberg
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What a fucking freaky film. It starts off being a film about one freak, who then finds an even bigger freak than herself. It just makes you hope they eventually get together and raise some freak babies.
There were certainly a bunch of people in the audience I saw this film with who didn't have a singular clue about this film. They were the ones that walked out not because of the sexual / sadomasochistic content, but because the psychosexual stuff wasn't sexy. They were actually expecting or hoping for some T & A and double entendres about taking dictation and doing a Lewinsky under the desk. Not a story about a demented self-mutilator and a sadistic obsessive-compulsive.
Let's be honest, at least in the realm of colloquial jokes and in porn the job of being a secretary has been sexualised entirely, which is quite ridiculous when you think about it. Anyone who works in pretty much any work environment knows that secretaries come in all shapes, genders, ages and flavours. Generally none of them are wearing tight skirts that barely cover their arse with tight jackets from within which you can see lacy bras peeking out from their barely contained cleavage. Then there's the whole peaking over those glasses thing and the hair done up in a bun which comes loose with a shake as she licks her full, red lips and says in a husky voice "No sir, I haven't heard about the changes in sexual harassment legislation" before earning herself a promotion by doing what she does best...
That is the joke that this film kind of plays up to. The promotional posters did that as well. This film doesn't satirise that idea, but it does slap it in the face with a rotting fish.
The reason that this "joke" about secretaries ever arose is ultimately because of the perceived fundamental inequality of power between a secretary (archetypically female) and her boss (archetypically male). It's the conflux of power, authority and gender dynamics which results
in this whole charade. On top of that is the idea that women will fuck anyone, especially someone with more power than them, but that's a whole different dissertation.
In this instance that idea is elaborated upon in an altogether different manner. The secretary - boss dynamic is used as the playing field for a far more challenging kind of game.
Maggie Gyllenhaal proves convincingly that her brother Jake doesn't have a monopoly on playing freak roles. After both doing freak duty on Donnie Darko she manages to forge forward on her own as self-mutilator Lee Holloway, in this film. She is perfectly suited to the role, and her unconventional looks (reminiscent of the silent era of filmmaking) enhance the tone instead of letting it degenerate into exploitative drivel.
Recently released from a psych facility (put there for accidentally cutting herself too deeply with a knife), Lee, who is patently strange and unsuited to life on the outside, returns to her old tricks. You
see, Lee's way of dealing with the stresses and disappointments of the world is to cut herself with a knife or some other sharp object. She has a special case fitted out with a surgeon's bag of tricks dependent on her mood. A blade for every occasion. Back outside she resorts to what she knows best.
We are given clues to her stresses in seeing her alcoholic father and ineffectual, helpless mother. But we don't know why Lee has ended up as she has. The pathology is deep, at the very least.
It sounds far more serious than it actually is. Throughout the film the director Steven Shainberg somehow manages to maintain an exceedingly light tone regardless of the subject matter. I don't know how he does it, I suspect it would have collapsed under its own weight had he done it any other way, but it works. Mostly.
In her pursuit of normality Lee ends up doing a typing course which she excels at, and pursues normal, gainful employment. Here's where the story really begins. James Spader plays her boss, an uptight but distant lawyer called E. Edward Grey, which is the name of an arsehole if I ever heard it. He is exacting and meticulous, evasive and extremely anal retentive. We are given the impression that as an infant he was potty trained with a whip and a chair.
What at first appears to be a harmless collection of idiosyncrasies turns out to have greater significance. In perhaps the film's most deceptive moment, Edward discovers Lee about to mutilate herself. After he calmly and carefully enunciates all the reasons why she does it to herself, hitting the nail on the head as far as her feelings are concerned, he tells her quite adamantly that she is never to do it again.
Hooray, we are to think. She's cured! Go team! What a nice man. Lee throws her collection of implements away, and the film ends.
Well, not really. What we figure out is that Edward meant that she'd never need to hurt herself again because he is more than happy to do it for her.
Edward is a sadist, an insecure and emotionally inaccessible man who only gets off through dominating and inflicting pain on others, specifically his secretaries, whom we get the impression he goes through at an advanced rate. In Lee's case, however, he has more than met his match. It is something that she wants and desires, and it ends up being just what she needs. She blossoms.
Of course nothing is that simple. Edward's desires disgust him, and he is caught between sublimation and self-loathing. Of course Lee doesn't see the essential problem because this is happy days for her.
Now, I am not in a position to judge in a moralistic fashion the sexual orientations and hobbies of others. Do what you want as long as it's consensual and legal, that's my motto. But even to me something seemed awfully fucked up about the whole situation. I'm not for a second saying that there's anything wrong with S & M or the people that love it, but it makes me wonder about the representation of a damaged person finding ultimate salvation and empowerment in a submissive relationship with someone happy to dominate them. It sounds awfully like a propaganda film put out by a bunch of dominants looking to recruit :)
In a strange way all this film ultimately is about is a romance between two people who are compatible on a deep level, in a way that means that they are probably going to be happier with each other than with anyone else because of their respective peculiar psyches. How that comes about in the end is contrived, horribly contrived, but it still carries a certain amount of meaning.
The problem with most films, and most books for that matter, is structuring the right ending. Put simply, the endings of most films are completely fucked. In some cases they can lead to a somewhat
disappointing conclusion or it can fuck up all the good work that went on previously, leaving you hating the film. Whilst this film does neither, the way it brings about the resolution of the story is the
height of contrivance and just downright unbelievable. I'm not arguing against where the characters end up, which is an appreciable place, but the method used to get them there just flat out doesn't make sense.
The weak ending doesn't ruin the film. It's still a very interesting peak into the heads of two fucked up people, and a far more interesting film than I expected. Maggie Gyllenhaal is a wonderful
actress, she will continue doing great work, I know it. James Spader has been doing great work for decades, but doesn't get any respect in Hollywood. I am guessing that there is a conspiracy against red headed men in Tinseltown, because he deserved to be bigger ages ago. Maybe it would help him if he didn't do films like Supernova, The Watcher and Keys to Tulsa. Think about it, him and Eric Stoltz reside in this film ghetto for talented red headed men that they can't escape. No respect.
This is not a thigh-slapping comedy. The sexual stuff is more discomfiting than anything else and the humour is pretty subtle. It's an interesting but not necessarily pleasant look at a bizarro world
romance where puppies, flowers and candy don't exist, but where they have red pens, neck braces and all the leather they could possibly desire. What joy.
7 hard spankings out of 10
E. Edward Grey: Look, we can't do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Lee: Why not? - Secretary