Secretary is, at heart,
a by-the-numbers love story. Troubled girl meets troubled boy, they
fall in love, but their troubles drive them apart before they are eventually
overcome and our loving couple lives happily ever after.
If the problem with this relationship were that the girl was black
while the boy was white, or that the girl was a Capulet while the boy
was a Montague, then the plot would be as old as the hills. But you know
what’s different in this film: the girl (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a masochist
who likes to be dominated, while the boy (James Spader) is, well, fond
of a little spanking now and then. What’s more, the girl is a fragile
young thing, straight out of a mental institution, while the boy is
a successful lawyer, who’s much older than her. Oh, and he’s also her
employer; she’s his secretary.
Early on in their relationship, Mr Grey (Spader) manages to succeed
where all manner of highly-trained mental-health professionals had failed:
he persuades Lee (Gyllenhaal), through sheer force of personality, that
she must no longer cut herself. Lee’s mother, of course, is overjoyed,
but we’re not, for the very next day Grey’s forceful personality starts
showing itself in a rather less unambiguously positive fashion.
The first spanking scene between the two is fiery, shot through with
sexual energy and confusion. But although we see the relationship develop
from there, even unto the use of some rather extreme props, the movie
doesn’t help us to understand what’s going on in either of the characters’
heads. It’s clear that Lee becomes enamored of her submissive role,
and, by extension, her employer. What’s much less clear is whether or
not she has simply replaced one self-destructive mode of behaviour with
The replacement part is clear: Lee runs to her employer’s house when
her home life reaches the emotional pitch at which she would formerly
have gone racing for the razor blades. It’s the self-destructive part
which is left ambiguous: she seems only to blossom under Grey’s tutelage,
while Grey himself becomes increasingly tormented and eventually breaks
the whole thing off.
Through voiceover, we learn what Lee is thinking, but Grey is much
harder to understand. Is he feeling guilt and remorse at abusing his
position of trust with a young and impressionable girl? Is he, rather,
disgusted at his own predilections, and anxious not to drag anybody
else into his own perversities? Or is he simply a repressed top who
isn’t sexually enlightened enough to rejoice in the appearance of his
perfect bottom when he finds her?
I won’t spoil the film for you when I say that in the end Lee finds
reserves of strength unavailable to Grey, and confronts him with a declaration
of love which he could never have come out with himself. When he finally
gets around to declaring the love to be requited, the story becomes
a fairy-tale (albeit one where the bride wears black), and the two live
happily ever after.
So what are we to make of all this? Do happy ends justify immoral means?
If Lee Holloway not only forgives her boss’s behaviour but finally becomes
a wholesomely sexual woman because of it, are we to assume that the
film is in some way excusing his inexcusable actions? And what are we
to make of the fact that Lee was mentally disturbed enough to be institutionalised?
That there’s a connection between mental illness and masochism, even
that the latter can cure the former?
I think the film would ultimately shy away from such questions: it
might be an indie flick, but it’s not that deep. Rather, Secretary
is a gorgeously shot, beautifully-paced love story with a twist, and
if you go in with an open mind, you’ll laugh while watching it and come
out happy. If you think that a responsible film shouldn’t raise issues
it isn’t prepared to deal with, however, and if you think that it’s
wrong for Secretary to glorify workplace abuse, then you won’t
get any arguments from me.