***/**** Image B- Sound B- Extras C
starring James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Patrick Bauchau
screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the short story by Mary Gaitskill
directed by Steven Shainberg
by Walter Chaw Pleasantville for the sadomasochism set, Steven Shainberg's Secretary is a gentle sexual-awakening fable set in a peculiar fairytale hyper-reality reminiscent of the saturated inward-gazing milieu of David Cronenberg's Spider. Featuring a courageous, social-convention-shattering performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal, the picture is The Graduate by way of humiliation and water sports--the hallmark pool scenes feature Gyllenhaal's Benjamin Braddock character Lee Holloway festooned with water-wings, her position just on the surface the mordant reflexivity of Sunset Blvd.'s doomed Joe Gillis rather than of Braddock's bottom-of-the-drink disconnection. Between Secretary and the Jake Gyllenhaal starrer Moonlight Mile, the Gyllenhaal siblings seem intent on tackling their generation's particular alienations by way of Mike Nichols's counterculture classic, but where Jake takes a conventional route in Moonlight Mile, Maggie's exploration of plastics-vs.-individualized happiness embraces the essential shadows of our nasty sexual ids in a Solondz-lite waltz with seething suburbia.
Lee (Gyllenhaal) comes home from the nuthouse in time for her sister's wedding. Dad (Stephen McHattie) is a lush, mom (Lesley Ann Warren) is a ball of overweening anxiety, and boyfriend Peter (Jeremy Davies) is irritatingly sensitive; what's a good girl to do but cut herself with a sewing kit to make sense of it all? Finding work with a lawyer who has a permanent help-wanted shingle hung in front of his office, Lee discovers that E. Edward Grey, esq. (James Spader) has a thing for spanking his executive assistants for their typos. Theirs is a match made in heaven.
Shainberg's extremely loose adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's interesting short story "Secretary" is an exercise in anthropology told through the mirror darkly of fetish and the extremes of abnormal behaviour. His sharpest sting the hypodermic Mr. Grey uses to crossbreed his orchid garden, Lee begins as a self-administering cultivator and Grey's next hothouse flower but evolves into something more closely resembling the actualized post-coitus citizenry of Gary Ross's aforementioned black-and-white situation comedy. The picture tackles feminism full-bore first with the fact of its subject matter (is it still subjugation if it's empowering?), then with a witty cameo from a Naomi Wolf-ite bearing a stack of dog-eared dogma before a wedding gown-wearing Lee planted behind Grey's desk. That it pings off the politics is essential; that it discards it for the inconsequence it generally is in human sexual discourse is pitch-perfect.
Secretary's strength is also its weakness: its simplicity. It's simultaneously as shocking as it wants to be and not nearly so shocking as it thinks it is. The revelations offered by the film and its closing, fourth-wall breaking shot are the standards set for the defiance of a charge of pornography: When the subject regards the voyeur, a certain degree of prurience is lost with the transfer of the possessor of that gaze. More, Secretary wishes to impart a kind of indictment of the audience--an invitation to reassess one's personal foibles and sex-play against societal norms and the lies of normalcy told in polite company. And while Shainberg's hand, Gyllenhaal, Spader, and Warren are each are spot-on, this particular attack has already been mounted with more alacrity and courage elsewhere. Originally published: October 11, 2002.
by Bill Chambers Lions Gate's DVD release of Secretary is kind of a bust. The picture was shot in 35mm, but the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer occasionally looks like it was taken from a 16mm source--though the most bothersome grain clears up a few minutes into the film. Shadow detail is just adequate and the colours drift towards oversaturation. More disappointing, however, is the disc's audio, listed as Dolby Surround but coming up as stereo only; it's a shame that two films from last year with notably clever sound editing (Secretary and Cherish) are not presented in 5.1 on DVD. Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson contribute a commentary track that focuses on the visual elements (wedging Wilson out of the conversation for the majority of this feature-length yakker); although novice critics may enjoy, this is a lesson in Semiotics 101 at best. A typical promotional 7-minute featurette ("Behind the Secretary"), the trailer for Secretary plus hidden previews of Shainberg's Hit Me and the Secretary soundtrack CD as well as a photo gallery round out the underwhelming platter. Originally published: March 14, 2003.