Monday 30 March 2020

Mubi Monday: Secretary (2002)

Sex. It's hard to deny that the world could be a better, happier place if so many people weren't so uptight about sex, whether that leads to them trying to move sex workers further and further to the edges of society, where they are more likely to be abused and harmed, or spending the vast majority of their time concerning themselves about the contents of someone else's underpants. And then you have the people who either judge others for their likes and dislikes, or spend a lot of their time unhappy because they haven't actively discussed some sexual preferences that give them more satisfaction than what some may call "vanilla" sex.

Secretary is about someone discovering themselves with the help of someone else, it's about a shared love of a certain lifestyle, or small choices made when the lifestyle allows, and it's a film that gets more right about the mindset of those involved than any of the few mainstream movies that have tried to venture into this territory (and it's ironic that James Spader plays a character named Mr. Grey).

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a young woman named Lee who starts the movie by leaving an institution that has clearly been trying to help her with her mental health. Lee goes through some training to be a secretary, and then ends up in the employment of Mr. Grey (Spader). Things start off fairly standard, but one or two moments lead to both employer and employee exploring, and enjoying, a closer relationship that allows them to explore their shared kinks.

Based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, which was adapted by director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson, Secretary is constantly walking a tightrope that it admirably never slips on. That's not to say it does everything perfectly, but it keeps moving without giving a second thought to any minor wobbles or near-misses. And the more troublesome elements, including the mental health background of Lee before she finds something that truly satisfies her while it scratches an itch she didn't realise was there, aren't so troublesome when you consider that a) a lot of people DO find themselves suffering mentally before they allow themselves to more fully explore something that easily makes them happier, and b) while Gyllenhaal is shown as submissive, to use one of the labels she is given, the script takes care to show that what is going on is communicated subtly between the two in ways that make it consensual, and also shows that submissives have just as much, if not more, control in any effective sexual dynamic.

Both of the leads are as good as you'd expect, with Gyllenhaal making a strong impression early on in her career while Spader does the kind of kinky SOB he's played effortlessly for decades (even in roles that didn't say anything about his character . . . he always played them like a kinky SOB). Lesley Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie are fine in their small supporting roles, the parents who are concerned about their daughter, but also don't necessarily know what's best for her, and Jeremy Davies is very sweet as Peter, a young man who may want to have a relationship with Lee, but may not be the right person to manage to scratch that constant little itch.

Although Secretary may seem, on the surface, as if it is designed to appeal to a very specific viewer demographic, that's not the case. You just need to adjust your perspective slightly. The script and direction work together to make everything clear, with wit and the nice subtleties of the character interactions helping everything along, and what you have is ultimately an offbeat, but still quite sweet, romantic film for those who don't really like romantic films.

And if none of it makes any sense to you, maybe read up further on kinks and fetishes, without judging others or eagerly dismissing it as evil filth. At the very least, you might read some unusual anecdotes from some very cool people.


You can buy the movie here.
Americans can get a shiny disc here.

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