Continuing on the topic of films gracefully treating difficult issues, here comes my all time favourite—and no, it isn’t merely for the poster art (although it surely has to rank among the most effective ones).
A little theoretical detour, first. An interesting film, among other things, successfully recreates and represents unique, individual, or alternative realities, regardless of how seemingly different they are from either the safe, every-day reality of accepted norm or the viewer’s individual preference. It presents the alternative with such ease, confidence and elegance of form that, at least for the time of watching, the unique feels natural, the subjective relevant, and the alternative perfectly acceptable.
As far as the alternative goes, no other subject matter can cause more stir than sex, and, perhaps, no other is as difficult to treat in mainstream cinema. With notable exceptions, it’s been unrealistically scandalized, glorified or embarrassingly dumbed down and it takes great amount of skill and oversight to make a film that’s realistic and relatable, without losing its spark. It’s a razor-sharp balance to maintain.
Which brings us to Secretary—a sadomasochistic comedy about a “demanding boss and the woman who loves his demands”.
Judging by the subject matter (and the poster art) alone, this film could easily be discarded as just another example of cheap exploitation of the modern fascination with sex. Luckily, Secretary proves to be a spankingly good exception all the way through.
Yes, the theme is sadomasochism and Secretary tames this beast of a taboo with disarming charm and eloquence. It cleverly takes advantage of the same stereotypes that would work against it (poster art including), uses the obvious scheme of a boss–secretary relationship, but with effective character and story development tells a charming story of how a disturbed young woman finds her true (intimate) self through the unconventional relationship with her enigmatic boss.
We follow her flourish from a complicated, mentally strained young daughter, whose only comfort from her troubled family history lies in the routinely performed elaborate self-harm rituals, into a confident, proud and matured woman, lead to self-discovery and fulfilment by her enigmatic boss, by gradually submitting herself to his overpowering dominance and willingly yielding to his total control over her physical and mental identity, from which, it goes without saying, she derives not only reassurance and a new kind of strength, but, you guessed it, an entirely new, immense kind of sexual pleasure.
It’s the effective character development that makes Secretary different and successful. Both characters are brilliantly portrayed by the main cast of Maggie Gylenhaal and James Spader, both accurately measuring the depths of their characters’ complex intimate worlds. We understand that the only way for their unconventional personalities to find peace is to become consumed in each other, establishing a fiery balance that neither of them could have found elsewhere without losing much of their complex intimate lives. Learning to maintain the balance between their intimate lives and day-to-day existence proves to be a stimulating challenge indeed for both.
The film throws in the sensual, the sexual and the perverse with mature charm, elegance and subtle, underlying humour, which could easily be overlooked with a less open mind. A less open-minded viewer can easily get stuck on the taboo-like nature of the subject matter and the alternative intimate attractions portrayed, but the alternative is presented with enough openness to excite and enough maturity to avoid being self-servingly provocative. Because the film expects and respects the viewers’ own maturity, it can extend its range beyond the skillfully played out drama to the stylishly spicy, sustained eroticism, emphasized by subtleties of the production design (from the nightly-lit, deep brown and red interior of Mr. Gray’s office and the sensual, fragile orchids he looks after, to Lee’s effectively suggested worn down items of clothing). To all of this, the film’s cheekily sensual mood is perfectly seasoned with the score by Angelo Badalamenti.
To sum it up, the film proves to be a whole, excellent and unconventional viewing experience that proves that life’s true happiness doesn’t lie in being normal, but in finding and harnessing the powers lying deep in your true (intimate) self.
A big praise to director Steven Shainberg and his team and a big recommendation for spicy nocturnal entertainment.
And now: Assume the position…