Jeez, what am I doing? First I take on Caligula, and now here I am about to review Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, a film about dominant/submissive relationships in the workplace. I think I really need to re-examine my queue.
Actually, there are many who admire the film for the same reason that people admire David Cronenberg’s Crash. It is a different take on the carnal desires that each person has.
But Crash is a much better take. This is one of those films that, by itself, is not really bad at all. It raises some good points and features some fantastic performances. But then it devolves, to the point where I am not sure what exactly I was supposed to take away from the film in the first place.
The film really only has two characters, the newly hired secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and the lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader….who was also in Crash. I would like to know how he keeps getting roped in these sort of films). Holloway was previously seeking treatment for her self mutilating tendencies. But while at work, Grey constantly berates her for her typos and, due to his domineering personality, takes advantage of her rather meek manner. This eventually evolves into a full out sadomasochistic relationship.
Yes, at times, the film was very difficult for me to watch. Frankly, if I may spoil a bit, the film didn’t really work for me. This may be because. I have never understood the point behind sadomasochism – pain is pain. But then, maybe that is the point of Secretary. The film is almost farcical in the way it treats the material. I mean, normally, wouldn’t this sort of behavior be followed by a few calls to the HR Department and a few pink slips being passed around?
But Spader and Gyllenhaal help the film enormously. For this material, I cannot think of anyone else who should have been cast. Both of them help the film transcend any possibility that the film will devolve into a joke. When Spader slaps Gyllenhaal, one gets the sense that it has actually occurred.
It helps for something like this to be at least somewhat believable. There are people who actually do these sort of things. Most dismiss them, but I feel that everyone needs to be understood. So, I guess the film is triumphant in making me understand why the people may act the way that they do. It is easy to trace the evolution of both characters. These are great performances in a film that absolutely depended on them.
The one thing I am not sure is what the film ultimately means to do. Is this a promotion of sadomasochism? Is it meant to be about how therapeutic such a relationship is? I think that is a very dangerous message. I do not know of anyone who becomes more…complete when they engage in such practices. It is meant to be an exploration of the darker recesses in their minds. I did not get the impression that Lee was being “healed” by the process, but that was apparently the lesson I was supposed to take away.
I think that the weakest part of the film is the ending. Without going into too much detail, it is far too upbeat. In fact, the end of the second act and the entire third act do not work at all – it puts the material at the same level as a Lifetime movie. Maybe, considering the dark atmosphere that surrounded the rest of the film, ending on a happy note was just a gigantic mistake. Is this really helping a basket case like Lee? I doubt it. Perhaps, in this case, chasing her desires was the last thing she needed to do.
I still think that this schism between its initial atmosphere to the ending prevents the film from truly achieving anything. Yes, the performances are fantastic and yes, I think the film asks the right questions about these sort of practices. But the answers it gives are fairly unsatisfying.