#8 – “SECRETARY” (2002)
Directed by Steven Shainberg
Dispensing with the customary flowers, chocolates and warm sentiments so prevalent in modern romances in favour of earthworms, red marker pens, harnesses and plenty of healthy spankings “Secretary” is certainly not your average romantic comedy. But though the pre-publicity veered towards the more salacious aspects of the narrative (especially with the iconically memorable “teaser” poster) the film ultimately delights with its quirky screenplay, stunning cast and, above all, the warmth and heart that beats beneath its sadomasochistically sexy exterior.
This was the film that not only allowed the divine Maggie Gyllenhaal to step out from the shadow of her younger sibling Jake but, perhaps more importantly, instigated my current love, admiration and part time obsession for her. In the role of Lee Holloway she delivers a truly outstanding performance that is in equal parts brave, fragile, sexy, sassy, intelligent, moving and quite simply adorable.
It’s a tragic disservice to such a wonderful performance, therefore, that the 2003 Academy Awards entirely failed to award even a nomination to the supremely talented Ms. Gyllenhaal undoubtedly shying away from such lascivious subject matter and instead focussing all their annual accolades on the perpetually gawky grin of Renée Zellwegger in “Chicago” and Nicole Kidman’s dodgy prosthetic nose in “The Hours”. Not that her performance went totally unnoticed however as it still won her a number of awards including Best Actress at the Central Ohio Film Critics Awards and Best Breakthrough Actress at the Gotham Awards, the National Board of Review Awards and the Online Film Critics Awards.
We first meet Lee following a stint in a mental hospital and soon discover that she has a history of cutting and burning herself that has left telltale blemishes over much of her body whilst fits of anxious self-loathing trigger episodes of self-harm. As she takes her first shaky steps back into the workaday world, her overprotective mother, Joan (Lesley Ann Warren) drives her back and forth to the office and keeps a suffocatingly vigilant watch over her. Those initially shaky steps are also accompanied by a tentative romance with Peter (Jeremy Davies), a former high school classmate who is almost as fragile as she is and whose parents try to rush them into marriage.
Into all of this comes one E. Edward Grey, played with consummate skill and expertise by the mighty James Spader. At times echoing Spader’s own performances in Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and Cronenberg’s “Crash” Grey is an overbearing perfectionist who claims to be shy yet harbours deep sexual urges alongside the requisite demons.
And it’s at this point in the movie that the most peculiar of romances begins to blossom as Grey finds himself slowly drawn to the mysterious Lee. Watching said relationship unfold is quite simply an unalloyed delight as the stiff and starchy Grey slowly gives in to his pent up desires and Lee forever pursues his affections in the most delightfully twisted and perverse ways. It’s a perversity that is further heightened by the inclusion of the seductively stupendous Leonard Cohen track “I’m Your Man”, with Cohen’s sensuous vocals and the lyrics “If you want another kind of lover/I’ll wear a mask for you” acting as the perfect accompaniment to Lee and Edward’s burgeoning romance.
That the film can introduce such offbeat elements into the narrative yet never lose sight of the characters humanity is what gives “Secretary” a great deal of its heart and by the time Grey combines his inimitable red marker pens with a somewhat unfortunate earthworm you’ll surely be as moved as if he’d chosen a bunch of red roses instead.
“Secretary” is a film that ultimately teaches us that every single human upon this Earth is as exquisitely beautiful as the next and that sometimes it just takes the right kind of connection to fully unleash our true beauty upon the world and for that reason alone the film is an absolute delight. It’s a film that is simultaneously sexy, witty, uplifting, hopeful, dark, dirty and delectable and one that is guaranteed to surprise and delight in equal measure.
“Each cut, each scar, each burn, a different mood or time. I told him what the first one was, told him where the second one came from. I remembered them all. And for the first time in my life I felt beautiful. Finally part of the earth. I touched the soil and he loved me back.”
Track #7 – “I’M YOUR MAN”
Written and Performed by Leonard Cohen