Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has a few strikes against her when she applies for a secretarial position at the law office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader). At first the work seems quite normal but soon, in between typing, filing and coffee making, Lee and Mr. Grey embark on a more personal relationship together, crossing the lines of conduct that would give any human resource director the vapors!
eyelights: Maggie Gyllenhaal. James Spader. its subject matter. its plot.
eyesores: its construction. its Hollywood-style ending.
“In one way or another I’ve always suffered. I didn’t know why exactly. But I do know that I’m not so scared of suffering now. I feel more than I’ve ever felt and I’ve found someone to feel with. To play with. To love in a way that feels right for me. I hope he knows that I can see that he suffers too. And that I want to love him.”
Having recently watched ‘Hysteria‘, and given that I’m going through a series of BDSM-related films, I thought I’d dig up another Maggie Gyllenhaal vehicle – the one, in fact, that first acquainted me with her. I hadn’t watched it since I first did, about a decade ago, but I’d since heard a few female friends praise it, and I figured that I had to give it another chance.
The fact is that my recollections were completely wrong.
For reasons that escape me now, my impression of the film was that it was decent, but heavy and unusual, making it challenging to enjoy. Looking back at the rating that I gave it then, and based on my current assessment of the picture, I can only say that I was entirely wrong: ‘Secretary’ is actually an excellent film that deals with challenging topics quite well.
For starter, there’s the issue of Lee’s cutting – no small matter, especially in an era where it seems almost fashionable for young women to do it. In ‘Secretary’, we are clearly shown how Gyllenhaal’s character is incapable of dealing with strong negative emotions and has found physical pain to be therapeutic in dealing with emotional pain. It’s neither exploitative nor preachy.
Given her family life, which includes an alcohol-dependent father and an emotionally needy, neurotic mom, hurting herself has become her lifeline, her way of getting through those roller-coaster days. She even methodically put together a kit for herself, which includes a few cutting instruments, but also disinfectant and bandages to minimize the harm she is doing to herself.
‘Secretary’ broaches this subject in an empathic way, giving us access to Lee’s thoughts, emotions, and the tremors that shake her up. Even though what she does is decidedly ghastly, even though it pains us to watch, we understand why she goes to the extremes that she does. We just wish that she would come up with an alternative; she is too sweet for us to want her harmed.
And that’s the thing: thanks to Gyllenhaal we really get the sense that Lee is a socially awkward, emotionally-damaged, slightly naïve young woman who is merely lost, in need of direction and affection. We are saddened by the way her life has turned out, and all we want is for her to be happy, to find her place in the world, whatever that place is.
And she does: after returning from a sojourn in a sanitarium (after a cutting gone wrong), she lands a job as the secretary to a difficult lawyer, one who seems to go through assistants at an astounding rate. In that office, she finds herself not only a focus, but also an emotional anchor in the form of this eccentric attorney, played in his typically offbeat way by James Spader.
One couldn’t have asked for better: Spader gives E. Edward Grey the exact resonance required for us to accept that, beneath the demands and anger issues, there is a conflicted, well-meaning and emotionally-starved individual. While he could have been spun too hard or too soft, making him either detestable or risible, Spader gave us imperfection with a hint of redemption.
The two characters are quickly intrigued with one another, and a complicated dance begins as he takes charge of certain aspects of her life and she willingly submits to the structures that he puts in place, delighting in the direction that she now has – twisted as it may appear to any outsider, including her family (who are not exactly privy to what is going on).
Over time, the complex relationship plays itself out in more traditional terms, with domination taking over from the masochism that Lee once subjected herself to. It is an agreed upon dynamic, with Grey explaining how tortured he is by his unfathomably difficult and unchanging behaviour, and she admitting to her need for a sure hand guiding her every move.
The two, imperfect as they are, incapable of relating to -and functioning with- most other human beings (as her ill-fitting relationship with her boyfriend, and his disintegrated marriage attest to), find in each other a certain understanding they could find nowhere else – like two jagged, broken pieces, that, as fate would have it, happen to fit together.
‘Secretary’ is based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill. She has claimed that the film version if the ‘Pretty Woman’ equivalent of her story, which was darker and didn’t have such a sweet turn of events. This was the intention of the filmmakers, who wanted to highlight that the couple’s relationship permitted them to be free, that they could finally be themselves.
Personally, I don’t have an issue with this. If not for the delightful touches of humour peppering the piece, if not for fantasy-like aspects of the film, I would have found it far too oppressive to watch; I simply do not like domination nor do I like seeing women in a submissive position. But in this light, even if it takes liberties with the original material, I can enjoy it for what it is: a twisted romantic dramedy.
And if not for its current tone, I likely would not have paid any mind to Gyllenhaal, an actress well worth knowing. With a darker, more sinister or grim, edge, I would have been too disturbed to enjoy her performance – which invariably would have been different, to suit the material. That would have been a shame, because her turn, alone, in this version the story, is a must-see.
As it is, ‘Secretary’ is a motion picture that is unusual and yet quite enjoyable – if one can sever the bonds of societal expectations long enough to understand that not all relationships are the same, and that even damaged people can find their place and their “other”. Two jagged surfaces are harder to put together than two flat surfaces, but it can be done. And it can work.
Date of viewing: June 24, 2013