Secretary review by The Grim RinglerI never in a million years would have thought that the day would come when what is essentially a non-judgmental romantic comedy about two people practicing Sado-Masochistic love would be hailed as anything but sick. Indeed, Secretary was hailed as a bit of a coming out party for actress Maggie Gyllenhaal who, after this performance, can pretty much punch her own ticket.
Secretary is the story of Lee, a masochistic young woman just released from the institution must now find a place for her in the world, a world she cant even quite understand fully. Living in her parents home, her father an abusive drunk and her mother a battered woman, Lees only escape from the world is through cutting herself so she can deal with her pain, the cutting having almost become an addiction where she cant even stop doing it to herself. Lee, having no skills to speak of, enrolls in college and learns to type, and having mastered that, begins scouring the Want Ads for people seeking secretaries. She finds such a person in Mr. Grey, an emotionally cold taskmaster that goes through so many secretaries that he has found it necessary to have a special light up sign made announcing his need. Deciding Lee is up to the relatively simple task of being his secretary, he hires her, intrigued by this shy and quiet woman. As they slowly learn more about one another though and begin to spend more and more time together at the office, Lee and Mr. Grey become fascinated with one another and are drawn to each others sadness. Mr. Grey though has a dark, sadistic side which begins to surface with Lee as he becomes more and more hostile with every mistake she makes, no matter how minor, his punishment of her getting progressively darker until they culminate in a humiliating spanking he gives her after he has found a typo in a letter. What he doesnt expect though is she likes it, and in his punishments has found the perfect outlet for her masochistic tendencies. Their relationship deepens and darkens as their sado-masochism grows, he relishing the chance to exercise his secret desires and she needing this release to remain sane. Mr. Grey though, fearful of his own sexuality, fires Lee when he sees that they are becoming more than secretary and boss and is suddenly fearful of getting close to her emotionally. Unable to deal with this Lee makes a last stand at his desk, refusing to leave it as she sits there, hands on the desk, feet on the floor, dressed in the wedding dress she was to wear before she cancelled her wedding to a man she cant love, unless Mr. Grey relents. And now, media attention on the relationship between Lee and Mr. Grey, can he admit to the love he has developed for Lee, and to the darker desires both have and go to Lee and take a chance on both of them being happy.
The funny thing is that as dark as the comedy is, and as hard as some of the scenes of punishment can get to watch, this is at its heart a romantic-comedy. Its the story of two emotionally screwed up people that become whole when they find the love of each other. And I have to say that its neat to see a movie that handles S/M as intelligently and thoughtfully as it does. Heck, if you read the stats for it on IMDB it even says that the movie features depiction of behavioral disorders which, I guess, but then, we like to quantify any behavior we dont endeavor to participate in ourselves. Heck, the sadder fact is that on the same page there is a guest review which blows the movie off because they didnt like see a woman abused, but, I mean, thats what the movie is saying that this is not abuse, its release. Lee is not a weak woman, she is a woman that is not sure how to deal with her darker sexual desires and thus lost, but in Mr. Grey she finds the person she can fulfill her fantasies with, and for him it is the same. In fact, the relationship that Mr. Grey and Lee have is very tender, his angry outburst early in the film his own dark role-playing and an outcropping of his own inability to accept what he desires sexually. This movie is not, in any way, a glorification of abuse, of hurting women, or heck of even S/M, what it is is an honest film that takes a real subject and looks at it with new eyes.
The real marvel here truly is Gyllenhaal, who is a wonder in this film, showing a sincerity and bravery that is rarely seen in movies. Most actresses are called brave when they get nude for a role, which frankly depends as much on the actress as it does the role because, come on, Halle Berry getting naked in Swordfish was not brave, it was a beautiful actress showing off her boobs, and nothing more. Whereas Gyllenhaal has to endure several scenes of her character getting spanked, dominated, and generally humiliated, and never once does she lose her character in it. Never once does she lose Lee in any of it, keeping her as solidly identity-free as she began, but slowly she becomes a person, and by the end of the film, is as strong a woman as any on film. James Spader too puts in a pretty darned good performance, keeping his Mr. Grey from ever becoming a monster, but letting him walk far enough into the shadows as to show his sexual confusion, but in the end, the guy is a sweet, caring man that adores Lee but is unable to express these things out loud.
If you can get past the subject matter, and just watch the movie and take it as it is, it is a wonderful film, and turns into a rather sweet romance. This is far from a film for everyone, but I really think people give it a chance. Its a credit to the director and all involved that the film never becomes a parody or an exhibition in sadism itself, the S/M being in the forefront but never taking over the film. The film is about Lee and Mr. Grey, and the fact that they are into S/M is secondary to their own sexual and emotional confusion and their growing attraction to one another, the S/M is just the way they are able to fully express themselves and their more private desires. Its a wonderful film and I am sorry I waited so long to see it.
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