Before Fifty Shades There Was: Secretary

Long before Fifty Shades, there was a film called Secretary

"Mommy always said carrots
are good for the eyes."
Steven Shainberg’s cult favorite Secretary confronts head on the full breadth of sadomasochism, the gulf between dominance and submission, and manages through it to emerge as a sweet romantic comedy.  It presents the premise of BDSM without compromise but manages to make the topic immediately relatable and even charming.  

Based on the short story Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill, the film concerns a dysfunctional and maladjusted cutter named Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) who takes up a job working as a secretary for a mercurial attorney named E. Edward Grey (James Spader).  Family life at home for Lee is as awkward and unfulfilling as her love life with her high-school sweetheart Peter (Jeremy Davies).  On the new secretarial employment, however, Lee and Edward discover they have a kindred interest in sadomasochistic sex games and begin an intense affair, including but not limited to starvation and climbing into a trash dumpster.

"Damn it!!! I forgot to do
my stretches this morning!!!"
What makes Secretary unfold so well is how it fearlessly explores the nuance of sadomasochistic foreplay to the inevitable acts themselves and manages to normalize the scenario and make it as freeing and natural as anything else.  Much like the lesbian romantic comedy But I’m a Cheerleader, Secretary makes extensive use of both set and visual design to create a jarring disparity between the socially acceptable world and the lives of its protagonists’ acts of self-discovery.  For instance, the home life of Lee couldn’t be more cloyingly artificial, replete with unnatural color schemes and plastic sheeting, poised in direct contrast to the wood and botanical adornment decorating Edward’s law office, building an impression of normalcy in Edward’s domain. 

Casting is crucial to the story working. Fresh from her bit part in Donnie Darko, Maggie Gyllenhaal is superb as Lee.  Where other actresses would have shied away from the task of playing an awkward and nerdy self-harmer allowing her boss to ingratiate himself upon her in increasingly sexually dominant ways, Gyllenhaal sinks her teeth into the role and dives in without ever looking back.  The perfect balance would not be achieved, however, without the distant cool of James Spader.  In a performance not unlike the TV director James Ballard in David Cronenberg’s Crash, Spader’s take on Edward Grey depicts a reserved attorney with a mystical demeanor about him suggesting a bevy of illicit secrets behind his cold gaze.  Where the recent press tour of Fifty Shades of Grey calls into question the chemistry behind the two leads, you absolutely buy the sexual tension between Gyllenhaal and Spader from the moment they’re onscreen together.

"Is it just me or does this lighting
totally set the mood for a beating?"
While the deviant sexuality behind BDSM will always carry a dark cloud alongside it even at the very mention of its existence, Secretary is as close as any film has come to lifting the veil and allowing a general audience to see the light within.  It performs the feat of portraying every agonizing act of both dominance and submission all the while normalizing it without sugar coating the acts in question or the idiosyncrasies of the characters.  We’re invited to empathize with both characters and can absolutely relate to their bond even if it involves self-mutilation and other various forms of degradation.  At the end of it all, it’s all about love, the depths of commitment and what Lee and Edward can give each other’s lives.  If nothing else, it remains the most offbeat and unlikely romantic comedy you’ll ever see!

-Andrew Kotwicki