Director: Steven Shainberg
Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson
Stars: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies
“Don’t underestimate the submissive one, the one who serves and cares for another. The Secretary dramatizes the healing power of the one who gives in, choosing to yield quietly to even the most absurd demands of one who would be dominant – – and then glides past the deadly monster of despair, indifference and alienation to a fresh beginning.”
Not everyone wants to know. Sometimes the pain of living is so deep, so buried beneath the skin that people are driven to take desperate measures that are hard to fathom. We’re a sophisticated society. We know hurt lies beneath anger. We know abuse begets abuse. And we know addiction defends poorly against emotional pain. So when we see a young woman cutting, piercing and carving the smooth skin reminiscent of childhood, the inner thigh so close to the source of pleasure, we ask. What suffering could drive her so mad as to reach for its source with the point of a knife? What other relief might she seek than slicing openings in the soft underbelly parts of her body? The Secretary suggests at least one answer; one path to healing a wound sealed by scars covering an unspeakable pain.
It’s true. Queasy, mixed feelings of vulnerability, fear and repulsion intensify a viewer’s voyeuristic fascination while watching a young woman puncture her flesh, yield to being spanked and crawl around on the floor in the Secretary. She does it so willingly, following her own desire more than the demands of her boss. It’s as if a taboo story has been thrown into thelight, giving us a rare peek into the complicated meaning of a sado-masochistic dynamic between two people in a relationship. Caring and pain are interwoven. In the Secretary, submission lies close to arousal. Giving in, giving up and giving over snuggle up close to a spunky spirit within this young woman that has not forgotten what it feels like to love – – not the other, but her own true self.
Secretary tells the tale of a woman and a man who dare to bring their pain to the surface, scrape through the scar tissue of old wounds and, surprisingly – – to them and audience alike – – find tendrils of love growing between them. The interpersonal seesaw of dominance and submission is surely familiar to anyone who’s been in an intimate relationship – – and, it usually isn’t very funny. But the exaggerated sado-masochistic dynamics in an allegorical story such as the Secretary where each partner gains as they lose, loses as they gain begs the ludicrous, inviting the kind of laughter where, as an audience, we are all laughing at ourselves. And when it’s over, I would venture to say that it will not be whether you believe it’s true that two people who dare to give up control find happiness. It’s about whether you’re willing to ponder the possibility.
Mythically speaking, Lee Holloway (wide-eyed Maggie Gyllenhaal) begins a personal quest when she takes the job of secretary to lawyer, Mr. E. Edward Grey (no one plays repressed sexuality as well as James Spader). It’s a classic hero’s journey into the vulnerable core of one’s being, but usually taken by a male. In this case, a female protagonist enters an inner symbolic realm of extreme trials and humiliating ordeals that will test her feminine mettle, take her to her nadir and return her – transformed – to the ordinary world. Like a true hero, if she’s successful, she will learn to be true to herself, receive a blessing and find her place in society.
Lee suffers a modern hero’s beginning, the deep pain of abandonment felt as a child in a dysfunctional family. She’s destined for happiness only if she can thwart society’s master plan to sacrifice her as throw away child. As a young woman just emerging from a mental hospital, Ms. Holloway responds to a want ad for a secretary. When she arrives for her interview, she finds a permanent “Secretary Wanted” sign outside the law office – – – like a motel advertising available rooms. Single bulbs circle the sign, lighting up on command from a switch inside as if beckoning to the next innocent traveler, “Enter here.” And in she goes, stepping from a disturbed adolescence into the labyrinthine offices of a very strange lawyer, Mr. E. Edward Grey.
As Lee arrives for her job interview, it’s appropriately raining, soaking the barely put together Lee Holloway into a pathetic sight for the waiting, distracted and wolfish Mr. E. Edward Grey. But she’s covered in a blue rain cape – – not red, so we don’t confuse the familiar fairy tale where a girl must be rescued with a woman’s quest for transformation. This journey will require both secretary and boss to be victims of animalistic appetite, both to be rescuers of each other’s most vulnerable selves.
The myth of Theseus lays the groundwork for Lee Holloway’s quest. Theseus willingly entered the deadly labyrinth of King Minos to which he had been sacrificed as a victim of circumstance — he was the only son of a king but born outside his father’s royal marriage. To claim his crown, he had to triumph over the Minotaur (half bull & half man) that symbolized the bestiality that a young prince out of favor must conquer to become the next king. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for young women to step into the role of a Theseus type hero hoping to heal the dualistic, judgmental monster of indifference and alienation that wreaks havoc in her world.
We may fear for Ms. Holloway’s life as she seeks a way out of fear and despair in the dark cave of masochistic compliance but we are riveted – – and strangely optimistic. There’s a gleam in her eye, a soft rhythm to her step. Amazing. She seems to know what she’s doing. She possesses what Theseus had to be given. Ariadne who was the princess daughter of the rigid patriarch, King Minos, gave Theseus a ball of string to unravel as he entered the labyrinth, to follow for a safe return. Lee Holloway holds her string of sensitive instincts and feelings to accompany her in – – and out. There she goes, hanging by a thread, moving steadfastly into the beastly emotions that develop between herself and Mr. E. Edward Grey.
As Lee makes her way through an outer office strewn with papers and files, a morose ex-secretary exits the premises. Presumably, a fallen victim to the Minotaur. Lee proceeds cautiously down the hall into the inner sanctum of Mr. E. Edward Grey. Could a modern Minotaur be defined any better than by his abundant cache of red marker pens ready to slash errors into perfection or a display of exotic orchids kept flawless by his hypodermic injections? In either case, it’s now clear neither he nor she can bear a soft touch. Only the point of a needle, a crisp red pen or a sewing scissors will do. She’s too bundled up in a cloud of sniffling compliance. He’s too equipped with snap judgements, well hidden behind a thick wall of protective condescension. Piercing appearances will be their only chance.
“Yes, Mr. Holloway, I really really want this boring job”, she says and steps further into the labyrinth.
We only get hints of what has driven Lee to carry a sewing kit with implements of torture ready at hand if emotional distress overwhelms her. She has been brought up in a family where pain is its middle name and relief has no name at all. And there’s even the implication that her only option out of the family is back in – – into a marriage with the boy next door, Peter (Jeremy Davis), who idealistically believes that playacting normal married people will solve all their problems. But what sticks Lee to her parents, what has kept her stuck to them – pain to pain – following their way, is a background not explored. But it is clear that addictive compliance to suffering is the home ground from which Lee must break away.
So, when Mr. Grey sneers at Lee’s pitiable presentation of herself, chastises her for sloppy performance and insists on mature behavior, he inadvertently fulfills a primitive, childlike need for caring and attention, setting Lee free to gleefully take control of herself. For the first time in her life, she is nobody’s daughter. She can FEEL because she is not bound to be numb for the sake of keeping peace for the sake of her parents. She is somebody – – a secretary. For the first time in her life, she refuses a ride from her mother and walks home alone! In her fantasies, she is lifted up into a woman of divine destiny serving a greater cause, becoming the sexual woman she is meant to be. She can choose, choose to descend into forbidden, bittersweet darkness of longing for love. She leaves behind being nice, agreeable and the apple of someone else’s eye. She follows her instincts, as politically incorrect as they may be, seeking excitement, delight and desire. Like Theseus, she holds on tight to a thin line of pleasure that got buried long ago. Not the point of a scissors but agonizing pangs of real feelings are breaking through as she searches for the core of the labyrinth where the deadly beast of ambivalence, division and stultification lives. As she goes deeper and deeper beneath surface appearances, Lee dares to sort bestial from beautiful.
Grey, of course, cringes while she sorts. He felt secure in his dominant status, sure that he could maintain control. He was expecting another quick death. Instead, softness invades him at the sight of her willing compliance. He feels her touching him, arousing him and driving him further toward his own vulnerability. This secretary is no ordinary young woman. She revels in her feelings and comes back for more. But he can’t stand to see her thriving on his brutish caring; he resists but he’s simultaneously intrigued. He’s even jealous of her boyfriend. If he can’t control her, he can’t control his feelings. But Lee won’t be quashed. She makes deliberate errors, inviting the slash of his pen and his demand to perfect herself. When errors no longer bring him to her, she resorts to a pointed non-verbal message that does the job. She pastes a dead worm in a letter and conveys to him that he is a man unworthy of her silence. His impeccable image tainted by a reflection he can’t ignore, Mr. E. Edward Grey rises to the challenge. He must make her wrong and, with his great red pen, circles the worm relentlessly and loses control. She has stolen his heart. As a last ditch effort to keep head and heart apart, he orders her to leave. But she refuses.
That’s it. Lee Holloway just refuses. In an allegory, the tables are often turned and, luckily for Mr. E. Edward Grey, he is powerless to turn his rules against her. She eludes him, and luckily for her, she does it in his office where friends and neighbors as well as her ex-boyfriend can find her so she doesn’t die of starvation. This isn’t Romeo and Juliet. When the monster at the center of this labyrinth is killed, Lee and Edward come out together. I can tell you that much.
In truth, Secretary is a date movie – fun, sexy and redemptive of romance. This modernized myth of man and woman sorting bestial from beautiful in the Secretary contains a secret, unexpected resolution. We know love is buggy. For the ‘piece de re-sis-tance’, the right ending for a nasty tale, you will have to see the film.