Wow, what an amazing film! This was a "controversial" movie since it deals with nonstandard sexualty. I'd heard good things about it (it won an award at Sundance) and was curious, but suspected it couldn't be as good as I'd heard. To my surprise and delight, it's better!
The story is about a troubled girl who has a history of "cutting" -- she cuts herself with knives, razors, whatever she can find. After being released from an institution, she goes to typing school and then seeks out a secretarial job. The fragile girl winds up working for a strange lawyer (an excellent James Spader) who alternately builds her up and tears her down. Eventually their relationship develops into a full-blown dominant-submissive relationship, where he spanks her for typing errors and she makes errors on purpose to get him to punish her.
So far, nothing too controversial. The girl likes to be punished, but of course that's because she's mental case, right? Here's where the film takes a different approach and upsets feminists and others who can't handle reality. In this story, the girl's healthier in the "abnormal" relationship. She goes from a fragile wallflower who cuts herself for fun to a brave, bold, assertive woman who knows what she wants and demands she get it. That's the controversy. There'd be no controversy if her passions were depicted as irrational.
What impressed me about this film is that it doesn't take advantage of the salacious nature of the subject matter. Most Hollywood films that deal with unusual sexuality do it primarily to exploit the topic for the purpose of higher viewership. I can envision this film being made into a vulgar, blatant sex-flick, full of scenes designed to shock and titillate. Instead, we're treated to an intelligent, unglorified presentation of a reality that most of us don't know about. The characters are real, the situations intense, the events thought-provoking. The photography and direction is spectacular, dramatizing seemingly ordinary situations to make them extraordinary. The camera hides more than it reveals, forcing us to use our mind to understand what's going on.This film reminded me a great deal about my favorite film, Harold and Maude . That movie's a black comedy about the sexual relationship between a twenty-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman. That relationship is completely consensual as well, and that's part of the controversy. In fact, there's a terrific homage to Harold and Maude toward the end of Secretary when a series of people try to persuade the girl to change her mind -- just like in Harold and Maude when the psychiatrist, priest, and others try to convince Harold he can't seriously love Maude.
Those who think Secretary is about violence toward women or something silly like that have missed the point. The film's a fantasy: in the end the two live happily ever after with their strange kink. There's a great scene where Spader tells the girl, "We can't just go on like this 24-7!" and she responds, "Why not?" It is her fantasy to have someone to dominate and "control" her (in reality, of course, she's the one in control by her willingness to allow the man to dominate her). It is the man's dark fantasy to have a sexual partner he can dominate and punish. His power is all an illusion, of course: she's the one running the show. But it's that illusion -- for both of them (his of power, hers of submission) -- that inspires their mutual passions. There is no genuine violence here; it's all an act. The girl understands that at a subconscious level as revealed when at one point, after Spader tries to fire her, she panics and cries "Time out!" She's realized that their relationship is a form of role-playing, and when he's doing something out of character -- firing her -- she's desperate to get back to the comfortable pretend world.
What makes the movie really good and takes it beyond a mere S&M show-and-tell, is that both the man and the woman's characters are fully-developed. Spader's character struggles with his dark desires. He hates and resents them, but he cannot control them. In one scene he writes a letter apologizing for his "disgusting" behavior. I found this deeply ironic: the man loves to degrade the woman, and she loves to be degraded; yet because society says their behavior is weird, they must not continue. The climax of the film is the resolution of this conflict, and the film does this in an unusual way as the girl stages a sort of hunger strike until the man gives in. That's rather over-the-top, but oddly, it works, especially if think of this film as a fantasy love story like Amelie.
Speaking of Amelie, America has produced their own Audrey Tautou with Maggie Gyllenhaal (who plays the secretary in Secretary). She is the find of the new century. Like Audrey she's got huge eyes that are amazingly expressive, and she uses them frequently in Secretary to tell worlds of stories with just a glance. (Half the film is her and Spader exchanging power-draining looks.) The final few seconds of the film, where she turns to look straight at the camera, is some of the best acting I've ever seen. Her expression barely changes and yet a dozen emotions flitter across her face, including her arguing with all the critics of her decision (both as the character and as an actress in taking on this role). I rewound that a dozen times, just mesmerized. Amazing.
Throughout the movie Maggie is perfect in every scene. Have you ever seen one of those lame Hollywood movies where they try to take a beautiful actress and make her pretend to be unattractive so they can later have her get a makeover and reveal how pretty is? Pathetic, isn't it. We're never fooled: even ugly the girl's gorgeous. Well, Maggie does it for real here, not with makeup and a bad 'doo, but with acting brilliance. Her transformation is astonishing. She begins the film fragile and vulnerable, shy and naive. She doesn't feel attractive or wanted, and reality frightens her. By the end she's in complete control of herself and the world around her. She knows how to manipulate. She's discovered her sexuality and realizes she's beautiful. I loved that the filmmakers didn't try the cheap trick of changing her makeup or clothes as the film progressed to "symbolize" her transformation. No, she wears the same unattractive outfits at the end as at the beginning, but she looks completely different. It's all in how she carries herself.
Secretary is a challenging film. It's not for everyone. It reminds me of a European film in many ways (similar to the difficult-to-watch Irreversible). It's a bit too polished for that, however, and the happy ending candy-coats reality too much. But it's interesting; that's more than I can say about most American movies. It's well worth seeing if you can handle your reality a little twisted.