Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 26, 2003 10:27 pm 
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Secretary is another of those recent American movies that violate all the rules of decorum. You don’t know where you stand, whether you should laugh or cry or grind your teeth. The ending has very little to do with the direction of the whole movie, as is also true of (to give a few notable examples) The Good Girl, with its louche humor; About Schmidt, with its snide critique of a late midlife crisis; and Pumpkin, which mocks sorority girls and then turns sentimental about Christina Ricci’s love affair with a retarded boy. The Gyllenhaals, Jake and Maggie -- who has her first starring role in Secretary, seem made for this trend. There is something about both of them that teeters on the edge between strangely moody and hilariously lighthearted, and they both have the talent to make the combination somehow work.

Donnie Darko, the most interesting movie Jake Gyllenhaal has been in so far, is all over the emotional and genre maps. It veers from social comedy to psychodrama to doomsday sci-fi, and somehow Jake easily stays along for the ride. He has a brooding hunkiness that, as The Good Girl even more clearly shows, can also become quite consciously absurd. Maggie almost makes Secretary work, despite its confusion. She is by turns disturbed, innocent, vulnerable, sly, wicked, and ecstatic, and it all seems to come quite naturally to her. There is nothing ordinary about her performance.

The movie begins with a party given to celebrate the release of Lee Holloway (Miss Gyllenhaal) from a mental institution, returned to the care of her alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie) and overprotective mother (Leslie Ann Warren). This dynamic sends her back to her addiction to cutting herself, but she escapes from her parents and her compulsion by getting top scores in a typing course and finding a job as secretary for a lawyer named E. Edward Grey (James Spader). She arrives to find Grey and a paralegal in a strange office in great disarray. There is nothing realistic about the setting with its rows of wall lights and faux finished surfaces and long corridor between offices. It contributes to an awareness that the action occurs in a zone of surreal space and equally surreal time.

Spader is excellent. After a long succession of nerdy monsters, he has still come up with something new. His Grey is a very strange man, at once brutal, pained, and nakedly vulnerable, giving even his cruelest commands in a strangled, hushed voice. Grey immediately sees that Lee cuts herself and tells her she will never do it again. He begins to abuse her psychologically and physically, dominating her, overreacting to her every typo, and spanking or otherwise punishing her.

The sado-masochistic relationship that soon develops delights her and one can’t help feeling that in a way it’s healthier. At least she’s no longer in the horrible isolation of an unhappy, deranged child. By punishing her Grey relieves her, in a sense, of the worst aspects of her insanity; the two crazy people somehow make a happy relationship. “Your work will be very boring,” he tells Lee. “I want to be bored,” she answers. But more than that she wants to be hurt — lovingly. The lawyer and the secretary are a good match. By abusing her he cures her, or at least satisfies her, because punishment is what she craves. Miss Gyllanhaal’s expressions of slow anticipation and half-concealed delight are something to see.

Lee has a mousy, sweet young boyfriend named Peter (the talented Jeremy Davies), himself a misfit and not quite functional; he’s had a nervous breakdown of his own. He had waited for her while she was in the institution. They resume dating and gradually begin having sex, and now eventually through pressure from Peter’s parents the two young people plan to marry, though it’s increasingly obvious once E. Edward Grey is on the scene that Peter doesn’t satisfy her. Lee has realized that she loves the lawyer, her willing tormenter.

But after more than six months of all this, Grey has a wave of self-disgust and, apologizing for his actions (“I don’t know why I behave the way I do”), he fires her, and despite her plaintive protests, coldly commands her to leave forever. By this time everything is so alternately arch and disturbing that it isn’t clear whether he really means this, or it's just a climactic, exquisite torment for her – for them both -- to enjoy. It's an exquisite torture for us to try to guess which it is.

At this point the wedding between Lee and Peter is about to take place, but Lee flees the house in her wedding dress and appears before Grey in his office. He makes her sit at his desk with her arms on the top, and goes off and ignores her while she remains in this punishing position apparently for days – again, the whole sequence is surreal, and time and space are unclear. As she sits there, her voiceover declares that this became known as “Lee Holloway’s hunger strike”, and a crowd is shown gathered outside while various figures from her life appear before her – her mother to offer her peas, her fiancée’s mother to insist that she return the now soiled wedding dress immaculately cleaned, and various other adults with admonitions and messages: again, the sequence is surreal.

Finally E. Edward Grey comes and offers Lee liquid with a straw and saves her, responding to her demonstration of love. He tenderly gathers her into his arms and carries her to a strange room where he bathes her in an antique tub.

In the final sequence the two are, her voiceover says, more and more “like a conventional couple.” We see them at home making a bed together, with him giving her instructions, in what has suddenly become an ordinary matrimonial scene. His abuse has shifted to mere male dominance, to guidance rather than punishment. They appear quite happy and he seems tamed. In the final scene we see Grey leave to go to work and Lee looks at him lovingly from the doorway, remaining home: she’s no longer his secretary; she’s his wife.

What’s troubling about all this is that it makes S&M “nice.” In aesthetic terms the ending is in disharmony with the whole. You can’t really consider in realistic terms that the couple’s behavior in the law offices could ever lead unaided to a healthy union. They either would go on with the punishment and the submission, the verbal abuse and infliction of pain, and somehow else the relationship would either go horribly wrong, or some intervention or treatment would have to be carried out. How could this very peculiar behavior metamorphose magically by itself into a normal union? It’s probably not meant to be taken literally. Steven Shainberg’s movie is based on a Mary Gaitskill short story. In fleshing it out, he has added a welcome degree of lightness and humor; but he has also confused us with a completely anomalous ending, a wealth of subtle but mysterious details, and a tone that is too variable to provide any sense of artistic unity.

Secretary is interesting to watch; it’s far different from what I expected. Much of its complexity would seem to result from the uniformly fine performances. Whether the movie as a whole is an aesthetic success is another, more difficult, question.

[i]Secretary[/il, 104 mins., debuted January 2002 at Sundance; also Locrno, Toronto, many other international festivals, and release in many countries in 2002, 2003, and 2004. . US theatrical release 20 September 2002 (limited), 11 October 2002 (wider).

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