[MOVIE REVIEW]The rules of the office just got much stranger“Secretary” is a strange little gem of a movie. Watching it is not unlike viewing someone’s rare butterfly collection; exquisite, even draped in death.
Lee Holloway, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, is released from a mental institute. She heads home to a life that is the same as when she left ― a drunk father, fighting parents, a perfect sister, classes at the local community college. She goes into the backyard, digs up her little box of razor blades and picks up where she left off: mutilating herself.
But a change is in order this time, so she gets a job as a secretary, working for the lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Holloway doesn’t leave her self-destructive behavior behind, but carries it to the office, where it begins to manifest itself more and more.
As fate would have it, Grey has a propensity for sadism, hiding his streak behind his white-collar job. Eventually, they create their own little world: he spanks, she receives.
Some feminists skewered Gyllenhaal for taking a role that in no way looks down upon a woman being sexually abused by her boss. And yes, at least in the United States, sexual harrassment is illegal (and incidentally, it’s a little outdated for a secretary to use a typewriter). But “Secretary” does not pass judgement. Instead, the director, Steven Shainberg, crafts a disquietingly intelligent film about people’s fantasies and secret longings.
“Secretary” could go wrong in so many places. It should be offensive. But Shainberg, in his second feature, creates moments of humor, fragility and strength, in a film sometimes startlingly touching.
Gyllenhaal plays Holloway as a blithe heroine out to conquer Grey. She devises ways to inflame Grey’s anger, spurring his attention, albeit in the form of punishment. Spader plays Grey as if he has merely stumbled upon sadomasochism, and is looking for ways out of what he knows is not “normal.” But when he tries to stop, Holloway becomes discontented.
Shainberg based “Secretary” on a short story by Mary Gaitskill. He takes a slightly surreal and definitely tongue-and-cheek approach to Gaitskill’s feverish novella.
Instead of inflicting pain in the first person, our secretary finds a second person to inflict pain on her. When Grey tells her to stop mutilating herself, she stops, that day. If it’s true what they say, that the best partners are those with similar visions in life, then Holloway has found her partner.
Indeed, what at first seems like an unchecked S&M tale morphs into a love story ― of sorts. When Holloway’s attempt to date a former classmate fails, we realize just how much Holloway and Grey have in common, as Holloway finds that the one who really “understands” her is Grey. I suppose understanding another person has always been a little painful.
by Joe Yong-hee