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.