Film

Secretary (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

Secretary is about anxiety, depression, the inability to communicate.


Secretary

Director: Steven Shainberg
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Patrick Bauchau, Stephen McHattie, Amy Locane, Lesley Ann Warren
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Lions Gate Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-09-20 (Limited release)

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) cuts herself. She hides a sewing kit in her bedroom, a box decorated with butterflies, where she keeps an assortment of razors, needles, and scissors that she uses to slice her thighs (where no one will see). Then she meticulously band-aids the wounds, making tidy rows of plastic strips. The process is precise, the pain exquisite, and the resulting sense of release and control all too fleeting.

Lee has developed this ritual over time, and with good reason: it helps her to deal however unhappily and insufficiently, with her sense of constant distress. Goodness knows, her childhood has been difficult: her father (Stephen McHattie) is ineffectual and mad about it, an alcoholic who embarrasses her even when he tries his hardest to show his love. Her mother, Joan (Lesley Ann Warren), is beyond overbearing, always checking up on her, always nattering on about the pert perfections of Lee's sister (Amy Locane), exactly the person she doesn't want to be.

With all of this going on, Lee feels trapped and forgotten at the same time. To wit: on the very day of her release from "the institution" ("Bon voyage," says her shrink [Patrick Dachau]), Perfect Sister gets married, at home. The sun is out, the guests are chatty, the theme is pink. And there's Lee, standing off by herself in her baggy blue gown. It's a lost cause: no matter how hard she tries to avoid her family, they are everywhere.

It's not long before dad is guzzling a beer and stumbling toward her: "You look so beautiful," he burbles. "Do you know how much we've missed you, pumpkin?" Mom looks horrified. He gets sick. They want her to be happy. They can't (or won't) imagine what's keeping her so locked up inside herself. It's not long before Lee's back in her drab, sad bedroom, digging through the sewing kit.

Secretary, winner of the won the Sundance Special Jury Prize for Originality (apparently, such characteristic deserves special notice), is about anxiety, depression, the inability to communicate. It's also about to turn into a romance, when Lee takes a typing class and gets a job, as a secretary for attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader). This isn't just any secretarial position, though she does file and answer phones. This is Lee's calling. Not that she knows it at first. In the pouring rain, Joan drives her to office, a cheesy, light-up sign outside announcing the position like it's a motel vacancy. Lee enters, soggy. The walls are deep green, the furniture dark, the draperies heavy. Ominous.

As she sits for her interview, Edward, morose and fidgety, peers at her, asks invasive, illegal questions ("Are you pregnant?"), then tells her she's overqualified, that she'll be "bored to death." She smiles, barely: "I like dull work." And so she will have it. Each day, she takes dictation, types letters on a big old Selectric, makes coffee, and on occasion, "freshens up" the mousetrap. She has a routine, she needn't worry about meaning.

Lee works hard, but still, she makes mistakes, typos that Edward marks with a big red pen. Nervous and sniffly, Lee finds herself liking his reprimands. At the same time, he's noting her tremulous demeanor, the cuts on her legs, and, no small thing, her beautiful behind. Finally, Edward can stand it no longer: he confronts Lee. He instructs her: "You will never, ever cut yourself again. You're over that now, it's in the past." And Lee obeys, glad that someone is telling her what to do, in particular, someone who actually sees her. She looks to Edward for directions on all her activities. She calls him at home, before she sits down to dinner, and he tells her what to eat: a spoonful of potatoes, four peas, and as much ice cream as she can eat.

Adapted by playwright Erin Cressida Wilson from a Mary Gaitskill short story, Steven Shainberg's film juggles several attitudes at once, observing Lee and Edward from various distances, so their behaviors might appear "kinky" and strange, as well as sympathetic. At the same time, you have singular access to Lee's lonely, thoughtful, admittedly unusual but also increasingly understandable existence. As she walks home from work, she's downright blissful, her voice-over revealing her budding self-confidence. "He had given me permission to do this," she notes. "I felt held by him as I walked along."

And then one day, they step over a line. Following yet another mistake, he has her lean over his desk, pull down her panties, and he spanks her. She's thrilled. She starts making mistakes on purpose, anticipating the punishment. As long as he feels in control, they continue. Once he loses control -- masturbating over her exposed backside -- he panics. He's unsure how to want something, to lose himself, to give in. This leads to complications.

Okay, so you could think, at first, that Lee is losing herself in all this. But it soon becomes clear that she is, in fact, finding herself. She evolves into a willing partner in a liaison predicated on desire and self-knowledge. That her desire might not be yours complicates your relationship with her. But if Lee doesn't fit usual movie-girl categories, her perceptive, often funny articulation of her journey -- away from her hopeless family, toward a relationship that makes sense of her pain -- makes the film's focus less her "issues" than your willingness to go along with her, to give in to her world instead of insisting on yours.

Such willingness may depend on your acclimation to Secretary's cues, some familiar from certain other films. Amy Danger's hyper-real set design and Steven Fierberg's saturated-color cinematography recall David Lynch's suburban underworlds, an effect helped along considerably by Angelo Badalamenti's characteristically ooky score. Besides that, Lee's experience, simultaneously mundane and extreme, is hardly unique. She fears displeasing her mother, she falls hard for her first lust-object, she must come to terms with herself. And while her gaspy, sensuous appreciation of the raw, red handprints on her derriere may stretch your usual identification processes, it also highlights the vanilla tedium of romance conventions.

The most provocative aspect of Lee's devotion to Edward is their power dynamic, of course. This is s&m. He's initially attracted by her seeming reserve ("There's something about you. You're closed up, you're tight"), then moved by her excessive vulnerability, her capacity for giving herself over, a power he sorely lacks. On the face of it, she's submissive and he's in charge, instructing her to walk home from work rather than take the routine ride home with mom. This would suggest that Lee's developing sense of "independence" is false, that she's only trading one domineering figure for another. But she's also learning to appreciate and acknowledge her own needs.

This means recognizing that the normal life she thought she wanted, her sister's life, is not what she wants. So, she must deal with the fact that while she's been carrying on with Edward in his office, she's also gotten engaged to her pleasant, if clueless, childhood friend Peter (Jeremy Davies). Her decision to walk out on her wedding day, and the safe existence Peter offers, is staged as a rather hysterical romantic comedy finale, complete with Lee in a wedding dress. Only she's not flying down the aisle of a church to embrace her true love. Instead, she confronts Edward, who instructs her to sit at his desk until he tells her she can move, then abandons her, hoping she'll give up. He's too scared of their secret passion, their shared sense of urgency.

Lee does what she's told: she deposits herself at his desk, in his chair, until Edward finally comes to his senses. She knows just what she wants, and she sits there for days, peeing her pants, fainting for lack of food, to get it. His family berates her, her family cajoles her, the local news sets up camp at her marathon vigil, noting the extraordinary behavior of this ostensibly ordinary girl. Eventually, Edward gives in. That is, he realizes that he and Lee want the same thing, and they can want it together.

Though Secretary might have backed off its edge at this point, conjuring a "happy ending" that might allow you to leave feeling okay about what you've seen, it does not. The ultra-trite, slightly creepy resolution -- involving Lee's voice-over rapture about finding her place, "part of the earth," while Edward lays her on a literal sod-bed -- does not retreat. And for that, you can feel grateful.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image