Secretary – Movie Review

There is a lot of really bizarre S & M in the Secretary, and moreover there is nudity and general freakiness. You’d be hard-pressed (I hope) to watch this movie with your mother in the room. I’m telling you that at the beginning so that those who feel it necessary can leave the room now. Let’s face it, I don’t care what your schedule says, you might be in the wrong room, and there’s no shame in that.

There is no trick, or so they say, in standing up for me when you know I’m right. I can get anyone to do that. The trick is standing up for me when you know I’m wrong.

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Secretary is about as close as you can come to a movie with only two people in it without going all the way over to My Dinner with Andre or Sleuth. There are other people, but who cares? Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhall) is the secretary in question, and E. Edward Grey (James Spader) is the lawyer she’s a secretary for.   And by the way, this is a movie about precision, and it is very precisely entitled Secretary (no “The”), and there’s a very good reason for that.

The movie starts with Lee returning home from a psychological facility where she was undergoing treatment because she’s a cutter. The product of a fairly strange home, Lee has been cutting herself since the seventh grade, but a slip exposed her not long ago and into psychiatric care she went. As is true of most cutters (I could know things), Lee’s cutting is very ritualistic, and she has what could be called a traveling shrine to the experience. In a fit of battling her affliction, she decides to try for a job as a secretary. The idea is a spark for her in a sense other than merely having a job.

Lee is the epitome of a person with extremely little self-esteem, and self-esteem or not, she certainly has no idea how to cope with life.

Her first interview turns out to be with Mr. Grey. He’s a lawyer we must assume is doing pretty well for himself, except in the keeping a secretary department. His business is a revolving door of secretaries, as witnessed by the permanent, light-up, secretary wanted sign outside his office. We wonder if he pays up on the ad in the paper on a yearly basis. Mr. Grey is also an obsessive-compulsive wreck who thrives on portraying an authoritarian exterior, but also thrives on cowering away from same. He is, in some sense, the exact same person, with different but similar (and similarly derived) problems, as Lee. He’s just had more years to stew in himself.

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What follows is a simple(ish) story that allows us to study these remarkably bizarre characters. The boss/secretary relationship turns down a shocking side-road, and they both become more and more involved with each other, while their relationship becomes more and more odd. It’s tricky to deliver details of their journey for many reasons, not the least of which is simply the inability to write certain words. More importantly, I think, this is a story that you really have to partake of, and though there isn’t anything to ‘spoil’ exactly, it isn’t the same if you’re told what happens. Perhaps much like My Dinner with Andre. You either watch it or you don’t, but you can’t really be told about it.

Secretary is a movie that tries to do a lot of things actually, and I think it manages most of them. It tries to shock you, perhaps obviously, for no more reason than to make sure you’re shocked. Usually, that would definitely be a negative. I think it’s actually a plus here for two reasons. A) The whole thing is hyperbole, and that’s just part of the game. You’ve got to go ‘too far’ to be hyperbole. B) The movie is trying to deliver (I think) a general message about love/relationships, and in this particular case to avoid going too far is to not go far enough. The way things play out, the movie asks you to take its meaning, but the danger is that you’ll say, ‘Well, yes…, but not if you were to go this far,’ and the movie has to say, ‘No, I’m saying… THIS FAR!’

You’ve really got two angles coming at you in Secretary, and very little should be taken at face value. On the one hand, with any movie that involves really weird sex (a genre James Spader is attempting to define), either the movie isn’t really about the weird sex, or it isn’t very interesting… well, to some people maybe it is. On the other hand, in any love story whatsoever, either the love story applies to everyone (or love in general), or it is only marginally interesting at best.

Put the two together (and I suppose it would be hard to avoid), and you better hope the movie has something to say. Secretary does have a lot to say, especially about love, and like Crash, it isn’t really about the weird sex.

When thinking about love, the story originally went that we probably fell in love with people because of some wonderful qualities they have. That story persists in the minds of many, and in virtually every movie you’ve ever seen. Why do you love so-and-so, someone may ask you, and you’ll say that so-and-so is smart, kind, funny, and who knows what all. While this sort of thing makes sense in some ‘everyday answer’ sort of way, those who struggled with the idea wondered if that really made any sense. After all, the argument goes, everyone is actually ‘good’ in the exact same way. While picking ‘good’ is certainly the way to go, it doesn’t give much reason for picking one person over another.

Every absolutely perfect diamond is exactly the same as every other absolutely perfect diamond. If, on the other hand, we had a world where no diamond was absolutely perfect, but each was flawed in some way, wouldn’t it make more sense to say that what we were picking among were the flaws?

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What we really do, the story goes, is pick a person for their exact set of flaws, and for the way their flaws mesh with ours. When we make a good choice (i.e. fall in love, live happily ever after) what we do is choose wisely among sets of flaws such that each person has their personal flaws diminished as a result of being in the relationship. A whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

That’s what Secretary is about, and that’s exactly what happens to Lee and Mr. Grey. She’s a cutter who injures herself because (as the movie tells us) the pain inside becomes so great that she has to bring it to the surface somehow. Mr. Grey brings her another, if perhaps even weirder, way of doing that. Mr. Grey is an obsessive oddball with no ability to express his real emotions who will never get involved with anyone for fear of being abandoned. Lee manages, and hyperbole has never been more clear, to show him that she will never leave him, no matter what. When all is said and done, the pair are still pretty weird, and still manifest their oddnesses, but we suspect that now that they have been as weird as possible, they might be on the road to not needing to be so weird.

What we’ve got in the end is either a mash of useless babble, or something that comes pretty darn close to defining love, relationships, and even self-worth.

Looking at things from another angle, the movie is wonderfully precise in its movements, and though it isn’t aspiring to visual greatness, it perfects its feel. There is a very definite reason we get the opening scene we do (which shows us a glimpse from the middle of the time we’re going to see). It’s a scene with Lee at her most (sort of) submissive, and by virtue of that at her most self-assured, most competent, and most complete. It’s no wonder that she is also at her most beautiful. It’s powerful, eventually, to give us this first, because it throws us so off-guard for what happens in the next twenty minutes.

It also sets up a general feel visually that the rest of the movie wants to aspire to. The office is at its best (it’s neat and shown in clear, precision shots), and the corresponding disarray we’ll soon see is part of the dramatic point. When the office is in disorder, it’s because Lee and Mr. Grey are in disorder. It’s a pretty obvious statement here, but it works for bringing about many of the scenes. Mr. Grey smashing things for example.

secretary3Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance is hard describe here. That’s only because it’s hard to describe the best acting you’ve seen in years. The movie is worth watching even if for nothing else but to watch her act, and there are maybe ten other movies I might say that about. She becomes this character, delivering powerful emotion, in a way that somehow manages to make the creepiness all the more creepy, because you certainly believe her. This is at least James Spader’s third effort at being a sexual weirdo, and we’re starting to wonder about him. In the first twenty minutes of the movie alone, we would start to wonder about Gyllenhaal, except that she’s so good we can only watch her with a sort of awe. 

Jeremy Davies plays the rather goofy character Lee becomes engaged to, and very nearly marries. He’s not exactly bad, but he’s pretty boring. He’s the least odd oddball on the block, and that makes him difficult to connect with. To be fair, his character isn’t given much of a chance. On the other hand, much as I liked him in CQ, here he’s playing the same sort of nut he played in Ravenous and The Million Dollar Hotel, so not only is he not particularly interesting, I’ve seen him before.

In the end, it took a long time to figure how to rate this movie. It’s a great story, and the movie has impressive direction. It also has easily the best performance by an actress, at least of the year, and Spader does an admirable job as well. On the other hand, it’s really bizarre. I mean really bizarre. It goes very far in everything it does, and certainly pulls no punches. Then again, it’s not working the sort of game as something like Rules of Attraction which is actually trying to be unlikable. Secretary has some humor, and for all its hyperbolic freakiness, you’ve just got to like these people.

The final judgement came in reflecting on the year’s movies (a year in which I liked a lot of movies). I had to admit that there was a lot to think about here, and weird though it may be, it was very well executed. There’s little to love, in some sense, about what happens in the movie, but I can’t seem to find a way not to love the movie itself.

I’d recommend it to a friend, but it’d be a long conversation.

 

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Secretary - Subtitle
Secretary – Subtitle
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Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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