Whenever a prestigious juried film festival invents a special prize, everyone should take notice. Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine was the first documentary allowed to play at Cannes in over four decades, and it was so impressive that they created an award for it to win. In other cases, special award recipients have much darker undertones, like David Cronenberg's Crash, or the brand-new Secretary, which took home a Special Jury Prize for its "originality" at this year's Sundance festival.
Now, the average Joe, upon learning that the film is about the deviant sexual relationship between boss and employee (and it stars Crash's James Spader, too), would probably assume that Secretary is a completely over-the-top look at the practice of bondage, domination, and S&M, and that it is full of graphic sex. But it isn't, and that's either something that makes the film extremely cool or a complete letdown, depending on your level of comfort with the whole spanking thing.
Secretary takes place in Florida and opens with Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal, 40 Days and 40 Nights) happily parading around an office in some kind of bondage yoke that doesn't seem to impede her ability to perform her job, as she swishes around to Angelo Badalamenti's (Mulholland Drive) hip score. This, we soon find out, is really the end of the story, as the rest plays out in a long, narrated flashback that begins six months earlier, on the day Lee was sprung from the nuthouse. She's a cutter and a burner, no doubt as a result of her Norman Rockwell family life, which includes drunk Dad (Stephen McHattie) and overbearing Mom (Lesley Ann Warren). Making matters worse are Lee's sister's (Amy Locane) wedding, which is taking place the very day Lee comes home, as well as the constant wooing of an old boyfriend (Jeremy Davies) who has a whole slew of mental problems all his own.
When it becomes clear the situation at home will only perpetuate her cutting and burning, Lee decides to get a job. The only thing she knows how to do is type, so she lands on the doorstep of E. Edward Grey, a local attorney who can only be described as Spaderesque. Failing to take note of either the neon "Secretary wanted" sign that can light up like a hotel that has a vacancy, or the previous holder of the job fleeing the office in tears, Lee is overly eager to land the position, even though Grey warns her she'll be bored out of her skull.
A few typographical errors later, Grey has Lee bent over his desk while he smacks the bejesus out of her bottom. But she likes it, and starts making errors on purpose. As the two get more and more into it, the bigger the stakes get, so to speak. She's a self-loathing wacko and he's a shy egomaniac-it's a match made in BDSM heaven! Before long, Grey is controlling everything in Lee's life, right down to the number of peas she has for dinner. But eventually the wheels fall off, and both characters suffer.
If this is an accurate portrayal of BDSM, it seems like a bit of a bore-but that may be the point. These are normal (well, fairly normal) people with one particular hang-up (or two). We're laughing, but not at the characters. Because of the special Sundance award, you expect something really sick to happen that never does. Then again, your mileage may vary. To put it simply, your enjoyment of Secretary hinges on the answer to this question: Is it demeaning to women because it shows a man of power getting off while he slaps a lowly secretary's ass, or is it empowering because she's really getting what she wants? Then again, if you're simply looking for a wholesome BDSM love story, you needn't bother with the question.
We've seen Spader in this kind of role so many times, it doesn't even phase us anymore how adept he is at being creepy. Gyllenhaal (she's Jake's sister) steals the show, both by default and because her performance is notably strong. Looking like a cross between Lauren Graham and Kim Deal, she is very believable as a young woman walking the line between complete mental breakdown and absolute female empowerment.
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