Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky. (slithytove) wrote,
Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky.

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Review: Secretary

SECRETARY is currently in theaters, directed by Steven Shainberg, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader.

Executive summary: A contemporary romance that takes BDSM seriously. An audacious film, that dares greatly, and succeeds, with very high production values, and exquisite acting by Maggie Gyllenhaal in particular. Touching, shocking, exciting. Go see this film immediately! Just don't bring the kids.

BDSM depicted in film is generally either pr0n, or in non-porn films, treated as humor: 'Look at all those funny people wearing leather straps!' Secretary is about the only film I can think of that takes BDSM seriously, and treats those who practice it as human beings, worthy of our concern, and capable of great depths and subtlety of emotional nuance, just like other characters in fiction.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young woman with a problem with cutting. And other stuff, like being unable to emotionally connect with the rest of the human race. As the film opens, she is released from a mental hospital, returns to her family, and tries to find a place for herself in the world. Scanning through the want ads, she decides she would like to be a secretary. She interviews for a job with a local lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader), who has trouble keeping secretaries in his employment: the 'Secretary Wanted' sign that hangs beneath his lawyer's shingle is clearly permanent, and has lights that can be turned on and off like a motel's 'Vacancy' sign.

Grey is a stern taskmaster. Typing errors (Lee is forbidden to use a word processor) draw his icy wrath. He's the type we are used to seeing made fun of in comic movies, the blustering martinet of a boss, who gets his comeuppance in the end. Or else he turns out to be a psychotic killer, who is killed by God or the heroine at the climax of the film, to the cheers of the audience. But in this film Grey is neither. He is presented as an individual, like Lee herself, whose emotional needs and ability to relate erotically to other human beings are legitimate, but so unusual that he has great difficulty in finding love among the usual run of women. Until he meets Lee.

This movie could easily have been a disaster or self-parody. The subject is one that in the hands of a lesser director or cast could easily make the audience dissolve into nervous giggles. But that doesn't happen, or at least it didn't at the showing I saw. Although the film is described as a romantic comedy, it's more drama than comedy, and there are only few items obviously intended to be funny (the perpetual 'Secretary Wanted' sign, for example). What humor there is, is very gentle, and grows out of the actions of the characters.

Besides good direction by Steven Shainberg, the film owes much of its success to Maggie Gyllenhaal. This is her first leading role. Her performance is... amazing. Especially because her character, at the film's start, is pathologically shy and inarticulate. Gyllenhaal speaks with her body, the slope of her shoulders, her walk, the way she turns, the way her eyes move. In her hands, we see the character Lee gradually emerge into the daylight, into self-knowledge, and strength, as she discovers slowly, shockingly, what she really wants, and what her life can be. Gyllenhaal gives one of the most impressive performances by an actress I have seen in a long, long time. Oscar material. I hope.

Production values are high, especially for an independent film: good, unobtrusive camera work and lighting, good music and good integration of music with action. The script flows naturally from one incident to another, there no dead spots. Events build on one another, with believable emotional logic, until we reach the film's very satisfying conclusion.

I'm rather surprised I like this film as much as I do. I've always found BDSM amusing rather than intriguing, but it's a mark of good theater that it makes the viewer stand in different shoes than his own, see through different eyes, and be in sympathy with people who might otherwise be alien to him. Secretary does exactly that.

 BTW, thanks to Taylor for suggesting this movie. It's probably not a film I would have picked on my own, but I'm glad we went.

on-yomi: shou
nanori: Aki, Akira, Kazu, Kazumi, Teru
meaning: shining, bright
昭男 == Akio (man's name)
昭子 == Akiko (woman's name)
昭和 == Showa (Era)
This is a Non-General Use kanji, apparently found today only in proper names.
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