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View Date: October 2nd, 2002

Rating: ($$$ out of $$$$$)


James Spader E. Edward Grey
Maggie Gyllenhaal Lee Holloway
Jeremy Davies Peter
Patrick Bauchau Dr. Twardon
Stephen McHattie Burt Holloway
Oz Perkins Jonathan
Jessica Tuck Tricia O'Connor
Amy Locane Theresa
Lesley Ann Warren Joan Holloway
Mary Joy Sylvia
Michael Mantell Stewart
Sabrina Grdevich Allison
Lily Knight Paralegal

Directed by:
Steven Shainberg

Written by:
(short story) Mary Gaitskill
(story adaptation) Steven Shainberg & Erin Cressida Wilson
(screenplay) Erin Cressida Wilson

Related Viewings:
Clockwatchers (1997)
Temp, The (1993)
Working Girl (1988)

Official Sites:

Also see my reviews at:


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In the world of sadomasochistic (or S/M) relationships, the focus is on control and power.  It is about establishing roles, namely master (or dominant) and slave (or submissive) establishing boundaries and the living a lifestyle based upon these establishments. Whenever things get to a point that goes over a personal boundary, the other will say “Stop” and from that point on, the boundaries are established. For about 90 minutes,  Director Steven Shainberg’s Secretary will have you absorbed, intrigued, mesmerized, laughing nervously, shifting uncomfortably and admiring its lead performers.  Unfortunately, the film is 105 minutes long.  Shainberg brings us slowly but surely into and under the dark world of sadomasochistic relationships, but unlike the lifestyle he portrays, does not know when to quit.  The ending of the film seems tacked on, exploitive, feel-good and totally Hollywood, a sentiment that echoed through the rest of a film, filled with hothouse flowers, a ratty looking dog and the creepiest dictation session in film history.

In movies, the relationship between boss and secretary has always been portrayed as one of control, power and intimidation.  Films like Working Girl, Clockwatchers, even the unwatchable, The Temp, have all shown the very defined status separation between these two tasks.  In Secretary, Shainberg takes things one step further, and way onto the darker side of things.  Exploring the shadier side of relations that Clockwatchers touched lightly on, the film becomes more about the relationship, the psychology and about the people involved This unconventional love story explores both sides of this lifestyle, showing how people can look normal on the outside, but have a whole other aspect of them living inside. If you come into this film expecting to see some dark, twisted sex scenes somewhere in the neighborhood of the gimp scenes from Pulp Fiction, you will be sorely mistaken.  Secretary explores the psychology of this lifestyle from both sides, and its participants are people who we may pass, dismiss or never give a second thought to on the street.  Lee is a woman whose self-esteem has been beaten into submission, figuratively and literally, by an unfulfilling home life.  A mother who has energy and expectations that are almost comic, a father who is abusive and self-destructive and a sister whose postcard perfect life would nauseate Meg Ryan fans, all have contributed to Lee being where she is.  Along comes E Edward Grey, an image obsessed lawyer who has a knack for finding weaknesses, both in himself and others, and then attempting to overcome them by overcompensation.  These two are a match made in Russ Mayer’s dreamland.  When Lee goes for a job interview as a secretary to Grey, the games begin.  Slowly but surely, Shainberg proceeds down the trail of showing the way that someone can become entangled and engulfed in this lifestyle.  The pacing is slow, but determined and relevant to the procession of the story and the characters relationship.  For awhile, the sexual aspect of the story becomes the least important and least interesting thing about these two.  These are desperate lonely people who find each other, compliment each other and become a part of each other without realizing it. The development and depth of the character development is the key to this film’s success.  We know, we understand, we feel for, loathe, empathize and in some small way, even relate to both Lee and Edward; this is thanks to the screenplay and to the strong performances. 

Gyllenhall and Spader apart are compelling to watch and behold.  Together, they are nearly incendiary.  She of Donnie Darko (and brother of Jake) manages to come across as vulnerable, wounded, shy, self conscious, yet seductive, sexy and impossible to take your eyes off of.  People often talk about breakout roles, and if this one doesn’t get her noticed and appreciated for the lengths she takes this character too, then there are a lot of blind and stupid people in movie land. She is a commanding and demanding presence every time she is onscreen, whether she’s sheepishly peering up at us while being berated, or seductively crawling down a hallway with an envelope in her mouth.  Her chemistry with the serpentine Spader is as undeniable as this movie is unique in its approach.   Spader, who can slither through the role of a loathsome character in his sleep, adds depth and personality to his role.  As Grey, he is demanding, controlling, bossy, but yet there is something more going inside him.  We see it in his exercise obsession, we see it in his piquing curiosity over watching Lee as she becomes his submissive, and unfortunately, we see it in the all too conventional conclusion, which I will leave for you to see. 

Ultimately, Secretary will go down as the most unconventional love story in quite a while, but to quote the otherwise forgettable Swordfish, they didn’t completely push the envelope.   There is a saying that power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, meaning that control over another can have an effect on the controller, the controlled and even the envious observers.  This film explores each of those with intelligence, depth and humor.  The subject matter was one that could easily have been taken in a direction that would have made it Cinemax fodder without a blink, but Shainberg, working from the Mary Gaitwick short story, decides to put the focus on the characters themselves, and not their actions.  By doing this, he creates a surreally interesting character study, an introspective cultural analysis into the power of giving yourself to someone, and the power of controlling another, and a very dark slice of society that definitely deserves a look.  Sadly though the film and story lose their edge in the homestretch, choosing to play it safe against the grain of the preceding minutes.  I was on the edge of my seat at times, peering curiously into a world I had only heard about before, while at other times I was cringing or laughing with an “oh my goodness did they just do that” look on my face.  As I left the theater, someone asked me what I thought, and my response was a blank look, a smile and a simple comment that I will have to let this one soak in before I can fairly judge.  After doing that, I am in admiration over the effort and thought put into the film, but a tad disappointed that it caved in the end.  If nothing else, the film shows that a film can be sensual, without being filled with lots of beautiful sweaty bodies, just some really twisted minds.  The thing is, to the outsider who would avoid this film on the ideal, it is about much more than that.  We may not understand it, we may even scoff, laugh or criticize it, but at least we can now respect it and the people who make it their lives, because it, like the film, is about so much more when you look beneath the surface.

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