reviewed by Greta Christina
I should warn you right now. I'm going to rave about this movie at some length, and I'm going to do so with a certain lack of restraint. I loved it, loved it, loved it, and I don't care who knows it. But I'm not sure how much of my love for this film has to do with it actually being such a very good film, and how much of it has to do with my gratitude for it even existing at all. In a nutshell, Secretary is a movie about a BDSM relationship that's not stupid, not insulting, not bigoted, not simplistic, and not depressing. It's a movie about a BDSM relationship in which the perverts in question are neither villains nor victims; they're people, interesting people with interesting problems, people you care about and want to be happy. It's a movie about a BDSM relationship with (warning: vague but significant ending giveway coming up here) a happy ending, one where the lovebirds accept and explore their perversions rather than denying or renouncing them. And it's a movie about a BDSM relationship that's good; funny and charming, engaging and intense, imaginative and sexy and vastly entertaining. I feel like it's everything I've been waiting for. Whenever I've pissed and moaned about the fucked-up depiction of BDSM in movies, Secretary is the movie that I hoped against hope would get made someday. And from now on, when I piss and moan about fucked-up film depictions of BDSM, I'll be able to point to Secretary and say "See? See? Don't tell me you can't do it. It's been done. It's possible. Shut up and go make a better movie."
Before I really get my hands into it, let's have a brief plot summary. The movie opens with a young woman, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), being released from a mental institution. Reluctant to leave the structured life of the institution and return to her gut-twistingly vile family, Lee begins to sink back into the self-destructive habits that put her in the hospital originally. But she also takes a job, the first job in her life, working as a secretary for an eccentric and enigmatic lawyer, Mr. Grey (James Spader). As the movie unfolds, Lee's training in her secretarial duties begins to take on an edge; the edge becomes a spark, the spark becomes heat, until the work relationship transforms, both gradually and suddenly, into a 24/7 dominant/submissive romance.
From here on out, Secretary is both rampantly imaginative and eerily familar. Anyone who's seen a movie romance will immediately recognize the story arc (warning: story arc giveaway imminent). Couple meets, takes a while to hook up, has a brief idyllic period of romantic/sexual bliss. One of them gets cold feet and pulls back, wounding the other, who nevertheless maintains his/her faith. After a series of miscommunications and mis-connections, the rejecter realizes his/her error, and the couple reunites. You've seen it a million times, right? But Secretary takes that story and twists it around its twisted little finger. (Spoiler warning... oh, fuck it. This whole damn review is a spoiler. I'll try not give away anything too devastating, but if you want to be surprised by Secretary, go see it and read this after.) In Secretary, the romantic hook-up happens when Mr. Grey stops scolding Lee for her typing errors and gives her a spanking instead. The blissfully idyllic interlude involves spreader bars, floor-crawling, and a saddle. The sad and frustrating misfires include Lee enticingly bending over an error-filled letter and Mr. Grey dismissively instructing her to mail it out as is. This is not your grandfather's romantic comedy.
And yet... it is. The whole "boy meets/loses/gets back girl" structure is custom-made to create sympathy for the characters and a hope that they'll work things out. It's a fascinating set of layers within layers; the comforting safety of the conventional romantic structure makes a compelling tangle with the startling intensity of the kinky sexuality. And it all has an odd, delicate, nearly-perfect blend of humor and intensity. Any funnier and it'd be mockery; any more serious, and it'd be melodrama. It's neither.
Compelling tangles and blends keep popping up in Secretary. For starters, the movie is perceptive to the point of brilliance about the complicated, multi-layered quality of power in a dom-sub relationship. It gets that it's not a simple matter of "the dom has power," and that it's not a slightly-less-simple matter of "the dom has power, but the sub has a kind of power too." The power relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey has levels within levels within levels, like filo dough or the Grand Canyon. Their play begins because Mr. Grey initiates it; and yet he's clearly responding, almost against his will, to a desire and potential within Lee. As the story unfolds and Mr. Grey becomes increasingly discomforted by their relationship (and more to the point, by his part in it), Lee becomes the aggressor, the one who makes things happen, with a remarkable determination to break through his resistance and make him accept both her and himself. (No, she doesn't pull a switcheroo and become the top; it's more interesting than that, with her initiative staying firmly in the context of her submission.) But even as she gains grace and confidence, blossoming visibly under Mr. Grey's hand, she is also increasingly under his power, in the way that anyone who fervently desires someone is under their power. Each of them has the ability to make the other happy, and that gives each of them the whip-hand.
Some kinksters may complain that Secretary's protagonists are less than 100% mentally healthy. They may fear how the non-kink world will perceive the movie; they may look at Mr. Grey's emotional distance, Lee's literal mental illness, and worry that this is how the straight world will see us all. And I can see their point (assuming that people making this point do in fact exist). People who know nothing about BDSM but still think it's icky may well have their prejudices confirmed by this movie. Some people, anyway.
But I don't agree with these hypothetical point-making kinksters, although I do understand their concern. For one thing, I think a movie about a 100% healthy kink relationship between 100% healthy people, loaded with negotiation and safeword use and post-scene processing... well, frankly, I think it'd be boring and nobody would watch it. Not much conflict, hence not much drama.
For another thing, trying to defend SM on the basis of its practitioners' total lack of neurosis is a big old losing battle. I know it's not the party line, but not all people in the SM community are 100% sane. Hell, I'm not 100% sane. I don't think perverts are less sane than the straight world, but we're certainly not more sane, either. And while some people's kinks are largely unrelated to their everyday neuroses, there are plenty of perverts whose perversions are intimately woven with their mental and emotional twists. Again, myself among them. And this isn't necessarily unhealthy. When it comes to neuroses, perversion can be a source of enlightenment, exorcism, sublimation, completion, and peace. All of which is clearly the case in Secretary. You see it vividly in Lee, with her stubbornly sane insistence on her sexual and romantic happiness, as she relinquishes her dependence on self-mutilation and hands over her pain-infliction to someone she can trust more than herself. And you see it in Mr. Grey, with his weirdly gentle understanding of Lee's need to purge her emotional agony with physical pain, as he learns (in one of those wacky paradoxical multi-layered things) to let Lee's submission touch him, to let his sexual passion for authority and power have an influence on him that he doesn't get to control. You certainly could see this movie as an example of the fucked-up things that crazy people do. But you could also see it as an example of sane, useful ways that people deal with their insanity.
Most importantly, though, I don't have a problem with Lee and Mr. Grey being bonkers because... well, because they are. That's who these characters are. Director Shainberg didn't set out to make a documentary about the SM community, and he didn't set out to make a propaganda film for lifestyle SM. He set out to make a movie about these two people. Lee and Mr. Grey have that rare quality among movie characters -- they feel like real people, with reasons of their own for doing what they do. They're not Everyperson, or even Everypervert. They're Lee and Mr. Grey. I understand the desire for kinky role models in the movies, especially given the near-complete lack of them. But this one movie can't fill that need that all by itself. It can't be Everymovie. It can only be what it is. And what it is kicks ass. This sounds paradoxical, but the fact that Secretary isn't a perfect role-model-y SM dream movie makes it even more delightful. The movie has a real vision, a bright, quirky, singular vision, and I wouldn't in a million years want the director to exchange his vision for mine.
Copyright 2002 Greta Christina. Originally published in the Spectator.