The Secretary is a film that looks at a rather disturbing look at sadomasochism compounded by a sever personality disorder

There are some films that reach out to a wide audience. Other films seek out a smaller audience, a specific niche of movie goers. There was a time when people interested in those smaller scoped films had to have access to an art house or specialty theater. Now, with DVD, such little flicks can reach a larger audience although those that get it may still be in the minority. This is the case with The Secretary.

Secretary is a film that looks at a rather disturbing look at sadomasochism compounded by a sever personality disorder. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is outwardly a sheepish young woman, nondescript and apparently extremely introverted. What the audience is privy to is what lies beneath this façade. Lee had recently been released from a mental hospital where she was being treated for her predilection towards self-mutilation. Of course her family referred to this as an accident, demonstrative of how nice little politically correct terms are used to whitewash the truth. Lee is forced to confront her most dysfunctional of families at her sister’s wedding. Weddings are often shown in films as a point of contention for a character; here it is a bizarre group therapy. For starters, Lee’s father (Stephen McHattie) is an abusive alcoholic. The main subject of this abuse is Lee’s mother (Lesley Ann Warren). Lee basically has such a uneventful life that hurting herself is the only way she knows to dull the far greater inner pain. Hoping to change her life she takes secretarial classes and winds up hired by Edward Grey (James Spader). Edward is a lawyer that finds it almost impossible to keep a secretary so it is only natural that he hires Lee. Grey also posses some deep emotional ‘issues’. For one thing he has the tendency to cover his own insecurities through the humiliation of others. The required partners for a sadomasochist relation have been found the seed has been planted. At first Grey starts with rather mild emotional and mental humiliation. Slowly Grey increases the intensity of this behavior until one night he spies Lee on a date. The next day he takes out his frustration by spanking her for typographical mistakes. Is it a hostile workplace if the woman starts to get into such deviant abuse? Although Lee continues her relationship with the other man there is no spark there. She does it to cover what she really wants, to provide a socially acceptable mask for her growing aberrant relationship with Grey.

Now many may see Secretary as degrading to women because of Lee’s willingness to be abused. This is the wrong idea to come away with. It looks at a specific case of an emotionally disturbed young woman that is incapable of forming a supportive and loving relationship. The contrast between how the other man and Grey treat her shows that there may have been alternatives for Lee but she was either unwilling or unable to see them.

Like many films, Secretary one focuses on two characters played to the hilt by Spader and Gyllenhaal. They both don their roles like a comfortable pair of jeans. This in itself is a nod to their talents since I sincerely doubt either of them have much in common with the people they portray. Spader has the range to go from the geek such as in Stargate to a dominating, inept person like he does here. He has the control not to come on too strong at first. He has the ability to build the disturbing aspects of his character’s personality. It’s like holding you hand in a pot of hot water. If you emerge it in water already boiling you instantly remove it. But, if you slowing increase the heat its affect is present almost without you realizing it. Gyllenhaal is destined to become a rising star, at least the new queen of the Indies. While the audience for this quirky flick may be too small, too specialized to get her the attention she deserves. Ms Gyllenhaal has an innate cuteness that is a strange juxtaposition to the demeaning nature of her character. She played opposite her real life brother Jake in another odd little film, Donnie Darko. Thing about it these two films would make for an interesting double feature night. There is an odd, compelling chemistry between the two actors. Their performances fit like a hand in a glove, well a leather glove at least.

Secretary was directed by Steven Shainberg. Few will be aware of his previous work, this being one of the first that were really promoted by the studios in any fashion. He has a lot of potential as a director. While his use of lighting is just a bit pedantic there is an underlying flare that helps carry Secretary. Where he really shines in the control is provided to Secretary. Rather than taking the easy, perhaps more profitable way out of degrading this film into a late night sex frolic, Shainberg shows expertise in how he focuses on the personal demons that posses these pitiable characters. Although Secretary is not long at all he gives the audience time to get to know the characters and even form a sympathetic bond with Lee. Without this potential for an emotional connection the audience would quickly tire of Secretary and completely miss the point it presents.

Like many smaller releases the disc is fairly bare bones. The video was an anamorphic 1.85:1 but exhibited a bit more grain than typical of a modern release. The color palette was nicely balanced with dark, smooth blacks and rich colors. I found some speck present but nothing too disconcerting. The two channels Dolby did the job but there was nothing really special about it. There is a director’s commentary that was slightly pedantic not really offering too much in the way of additional insight into Secretary. Add to this a short featurette and the disc is well done but not one that will show off the capabilities of DVD as a format. What should compel you to get this disc is the film itself. Secretary provides an interesting and imaginative look at a dark side fo the human emotional spectrum in a fashion that is witty and darkly comic.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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