THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Secretary is a movie that practically reaches off the screen and slaps you in the face. I mean that in a good way. During the opening scenes, you are not sure what you are watching. There is a sense that the movie is going somewhere, but you can't quite put your finger on where. About a third of the way through, the subject of the film becomes clear and, for a second, you wonder what you've gotten yourself into. Then, as the story deepens, you realize that even though Secretary goes down an uncomfortable road, it does so in a way that is refreshingly honest, intelligent, and eminently watchable. I won't lie and say this is a film for everybody, but if you like challenging material, then this is one of the must-see movies of the year.

James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhall perform unusual office tasks in Secretary
Maggie Gyllenhall plays Lee Holloway, a young woman recently released from a mental institution. She returns home to her alcoholic father and overly-protective mother (Lesley Ann Warren). Lee has a secret: she's a self-mutilator, cutting herself as a way of dealing with feelings she can't process. Desperate to get her life on track, she applies for - and gets - a job as a secretary for a lawyer named E. Edward Gray (James Spader). He is impressed by her endless desire to please. But as the job goes on, Edward begins making more and more demands: retype this, stop sniffling your nose, answer the phone with more authority. After the umpteenth misspelled word on a typed business letter, he instructs Lee to bend over a table and read while he repeatedly smacks her on the buttocks.

This is the moment when the theme of Secretary becomes clear: it's an examination of the Dominant/Submissive relationship. At first, the characters engage in a kind of dance, with Edward making increasingly more insistent demands and Lee unquestionably following them. Surprised that she so eagerly complies, Edward takes things up a notch. He makes her walk around the office in bondage gear, dictates how many peas she is allowed to eat for dinner (exactly four) and - at one point - sticks a saddle on her back and a carrot in her mouth. It soon becomes clear that she likes what he's doing; she even does things to invite his dominance. This is what allows him to continue.

I'm sure this premise sounds icky to some of you. The genius of Secretary is that, while there are sexual overtones, this is not a sex movie. If you go looking for titillation, you'll be sorely disappointed. Director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson are interested in the psychology behind dominance and submission, not in the acts themselves. Lee is the way she is because she wants to be good at something. She wants to find a way to gain the acceptance and approval she has never felt. Submissiveness makes her feel like she is at least pleasing somebody; it replaces her need to self-mutilate. Edward, on the other hand, ultimately reveals himself to be something other than a sicko. The character is humanized when he acknowledges to Lee that he is repulsed by his own impulses. The guy gets turned on by ordering his secretaries around. He simply can't help it.

The filmmakers refuse to pass judgement on the characters, which allows us to gain a deeper understanding of their behaviors. I admire the way Shainberg finds the right tone, never veering into either silliness or sleaziness. The intention here is not to be shocking (although the movie sometimes is) but to examine a kind of relationship not often seen in movies. Surprisingly, just when I expected Secretary to go to a very dark place, it makes a left turn and produces an unexpectedly sweet ending. The message seems to be that "aberrance" is only bad when it's one person inflicting it upon another. When both parties are willing participants, it can actually serve to fulfill some needs that might otherwise be misunderstood or carried out in harmful ways.

To make this work, it is crucial to have the exact right actors. Maggie Gyllenhall deserves serious Oscar consideration for her performance as Lee. The part is daring and risky, requiring a tremendous amount of bravery. The actress jumps full-throttle into this character, always maintaining believability even when the situations become weirder and more perverse. James Spader plays what is generally a "James Spader role": a weird guy with lots of kinky hangups. No one does this kind of thing better, though, and he is equally outstanding. I like the way Spader refuses to play Edward as a pervert. He's a human being with desires he is ashamed of but cannot deny.

Secretary admittedly makes you uncomfortable at times, but that's intentional. It can't make its point unless it also makes you squirm a few times. This is one of the boldest movies of the year, daring to deal with some challenging issues in an intelligent way. It's not exploitation - not when it's done with so much thoughtfulness and, yes, class.

( 1/2 out of four)

Secretary is rated R for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.

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