Thursday, July 24, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Secretary (2002)

Years ago I came across Secretary on late night cable when I couldn't sleep. First I saw James Spader was in it and went "yay!". Then something crazy flashed on the screen; the protagonist is upset and pulls a steaming kettle off the stove, pressing it against her inner thigh. There was no way I could turn it off after that.

It's a weird little movie with dark humor and an almost fairytale-like quality that makes everything feel whimsical and sweet. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee, an awkward girl freshly released from a mental hospital (handy, as Gyllenhaal is a little awkward, herself). She is a self-harmer and indulges in cutting herself much like one would indulge in a box of chocolates. Her family is dysfunctional, but she tries very hard to move beyond her problems. She works to become a brilliant typist and searches for a job.

And that's when she finds the Wanted Ad to become Mr. E. Edward Grey's secretary.

Before the interview, she fantasizes about how glamorous the job will be. She's downright giddy about possibly working for a lawyer. It's sort of adorable.

Then she meets Edward, played by the incredibly underrated Mr. Spader. He's delightfully odd and elusive, and I'm not so sure I would have stayed for an interview after standing under his gaze for an eternity... even for James Spader. His behavior is random, jerky and uptight. In the middle of the interview he turns a light onto a splendid, beautiful flower....just hanging around in a display case in the back of his office. Typical for an attorney (or for a metaphor).

Oh, and by the way, he has a permanent "Secretary Wanted" sign with lights around it on the building's front lawn. Lee walks in for the interview just as his last secretary walks out, and the lights on the sign blink on.

Edward hires her. Immediately he hones in on Lee's submissive personality. He prods her to change her clothing, curb her annoying and nervous habits, helps her with her shyness, and even goes so far as to help her with her self-harm inclinations.

Lee begins to blossom, much like the flowers Edward carefully tends to in his office. She ditches her childlike possessions--snow globes and girly pens, etc.--and grows up.

Then their relationship suddenly dips into a heavily Dominant/submissive lifestyle. Edward spanks Lee. Ties her up. Jerks off against her ass. Is it weird to say that it feels charming?

Her relationship with Edward makes her confident and provides an outlet for her pain. She's eager to please him, accepting each new layer of their relationship with as much enthusiasm as when he dictates a letter. Writing that, I realize it might sound bizarre out of context, but Lee really, really loves her job. Serving Edward has become a part of her identity. She has a purpose, in her mind.

A delightful montage of Lee in different poses shows the evolution of their relationship, as well as the obviously growing comfort and trust between them. "I'm Your Man" performed by Leonard Cohen adds an extra level of sarcastic humor to the scenes, particularly the one when Lee aggressively bites a carrot as Edward puts a saddle on her.

The movie skirts around the stigma, or general ignorance, of that particular branch of sexuality. Their relationship falls underneath the umbrella of BDSM, a sexual lifestyle that's slowly made its way into mainstream culture thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey. There is a darkness there--cutting, self-mutiliation, pain, spanking, humiliation--but the film practically skips and hums its way through it. The situation is painted as idyllic. What is additionally strange is the couple do not have sex during these months where they tip-toe into their power exchange relationship, emphasizing further that it isn't just about sex.

This isn't something dragged into the bedroom now and then for fun. It is a lifestyle.

This is further illustrated when Peter, Lee's uncomfortable boyfriend and later fiancé (played by Jeremy Davies), sees Lee sitting in a chair, refusing to move her arms because Edward told her not to. Confused, frustrated and maybe even a little scared, Peter demands to know what she's doing.

Peter: Are you doing something sexual?
Lee: Does this look sexual to you?

We eventually learn that Edward regards his behavior with embarrassment and hatred. At one point Edward insists that people can't "do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week". Lee begs to differ, and it becomes very interesting to see her suddenly possess potent strength and determination. Gone is the girl with shifty eyes and shy mumbles.

Later, different characters give voice to their opinions on Edward and Lee's unorthodox relationship,  and also on Lee's determination to prove to Edward that what they do together is good and right. Mostly the response is positive, and many admit they don't understand the terms of the relationship.

Two interesting quotes stuck out to me:
You are the child of god's holy gift of life. You come from me. But you are not me. Your soul and your body are your own, and yours to do with as you wish.
Who's to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?
I especially like the first one (said by Lee's father, who she is particularly close with). I know the BDSM community is very vehement on stressing everything is "safe and consensual". There are darker parts of the world--slaves and Daddy/little girl dynamics come to mind--that are regarded with a great deal of suspicion. While these relationships might seem dubious to outsiders, Lee and Edward's more subtle power exchange is a lot more relatable for us.

Here, we have two adults who are in pain and who manage to feel better thanks to their relationship. I'm not sure if their relationship makes sense to me, but it
makes sense to them. The film is certainly saying that the stigma is wrong, that people can find love and acceptance any way that wish to. The end scene featuring Lee almost glaring at the camera with obvious self-righteousness speaks to that.

Your mail, Sir.
The other characters and plot-lines are either amusing or unnecessary, and are treated with a superficial amount of attention. And yet they aren't exactly forgettable. I really enjoyed Lee's clueless but well-meaning mom and her awkward boyfriend Peter. A peek at others seeking the same sort of release from pain is as funny as it is eye-opening; I'm laughing as I remember one guy tied to a stove, begging Lee to throw tomatoes at him.

It's more believable and natural than something like Fifty Shades of Grey, though it has been overlooked. 

I don't need to have an opinion about BDSM culture or Dom/sub relationships--or I can at least put my beliefs on hold-- to enjoy and appreciate Secretary as the well-made, sexy movie it is. Okay, maybe James Spader plays a part in my love for it. And I do have a problem with Lee's initial urge to hurt herself not being dealt with, and instead insinuating all she really needed was a good smack on the ass. Isn't that only a band-aid? I think the film stays on the surface of these issues, and even romanticizes them a bit. Still, I love that Lee has such a transformation. She went from a meek girl being driven around by her mother to a woman who fights for what she wants.

At its heart, Secretary is a love story. It's fascinating to watch because it offers a little peek into a world many of us don't know or understand. The characters and their growing affection are dealt with delicately. I meant it when I said it has a fairytale element to it. It's rewarding, frustrating and humorous to take the journey alongside Lee as she reclaims her femininity, her sexuality and...really, her identity. 

Just don't spank me if you don't like it.