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Secretary (2002)

by on 2011/02/23

“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”

* * * * *

This screening was the third time I’d seen Secretary, and matters are becoming more confusing for me, not less. After my first viewing, I remembered little other than not much caring for it. The second time, I felt somewhat resistant, and yet wound up quite enjoying it. Now, I’ve discovered entirely unfamiliar sequences and subplots, and I cherish this modest gem even more than ever before.

The titular secretary is Lee Holloway (Donnie Darko’s Maggie Gyllenhaal), who has been plagued with self-harm issues since the seventh grade. Between her alcoholic, unemployed father (Watchmen’s Stephen McHattie) and her terrorized, paranoid mother (Clue’s Lesley Ann Warren), it’s little wonder she is familiar with pain and escapist impulses.

Just released from an asylum after a mistaken suicide attempt, Lee is not self-destructive as such. (In fact, she routinely swims with no less than eight pairs of water wings.) Resolving to improve her situation, she learns to type, fosters a positive mindset, and searches the want ads for work.

Enter Mr. E. Edward Grey (Crash’s James Spader), a private lawyer with various issues of his own. Stricken with an apparent obsessive-compulsive disorder, he collects red markers, meticulously cares for orchids, and exercises to exhaustion. An inconsistent taskmaster, he has a history of difficult relationships and a surprising disregard for the line between professional and personal.

While their relationship begins normally enough, there are several early hints of the unconventional. Inauspiciously, Grey’s former secretary flees in tears upon Lee’s arrival; he will not allow her the use of a computer; he “sells” her role as one of abject tedium; he asks her a series of inappropriate questions during the initial interview.

Like a lost and simple pet, however, Lee kowtows to Grey’s whims, forgiving the most egregious lapses, always eager to please. Eventually he becomes more strict with her, demanding new particulars in her performance, appearance, and mannerisms. He broaches the matter of her visible scars and, after forbidding her to hurt herself again, begins to punish her himself. Her initial shock soon gives way to confusion, pleasure, dependence, and affection. But does he share her investment in their long-term potential?

That very question forms the core of my . . . I’ll say “hesitation” about the film. The story is profoundly romantic despite its subcultural trappings, which the mainstream may confuse with depravity or violence. I caught myself searching for clues to hope, and finding only dragon teeth. What if Lee is not unique to Grey? His “Secretary Wanted” sign is as generic as it is perennial. Right up to the final scene, the doubt remained in my mind. Are they truly kindred, or “merely” compatible?

Whether my reactions brand me pessimistic, indecisive, or terminally romantic, I found much to love in this twisted tale of girl meets boy. I can say with considerable certainty: not only is Secretary rewatchable, but each subsequent viewing of it has provided an ever-evolving, ever-improving experience. Assume the position indeed.

* * * * *

Rated 18A for adult situations, language, nudity, substance abuse, and violence

111 minutes

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