It’s deliciously ironic that James Spader’s character in Steven Shainberg’s movie, Secretary is called Mr Grey… and that the film is an account of a BDSM relationship as well. Shainberg’s film however, manages to be neither exploitative nor prudish, and even occasionally rather wickedly witty.
In Secretary, Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, an erstwhile psychiatric inmate who accepts a job as secretary to an uptight, obsessive-compulsive lawyer, Mr. Grey (James Spader). Grey soon begins quietly criticizing her work and appearance, and demanding that she perform even the most menial tasks exactly to his instructions – demands that have clearly made a slew of previous employees quit the job.
Their connection first emerges when Mr. Grey determinedly sits Lee down for a talk, as he has noticed scars from her self-harming. He gently reveals that he precisely understands the psychological reasons behind why she does this. Mr. Grey may have his own needs to contend with, but he is clearly acutely attuned to Lee – more so than her family or her timid boyfriend, Peter (Jeremy Davies).
Grey calmly commands that Lee shall not cut herself again. Surprisingly, this works, as Lee’s desire to obey Grey has become stronger than other compulsions. Grey senses this, and the next day he calls her into his office for her first spanking. Though it proves hard for us and for Lee to understand, Grey is giving her what she needs. He becomes a steely Pygmalion, whose instructions as to how she should dress, do her job and even eat, begin to give her life shape and purpose.
Secretary might have been a lesser film about a boss abusing a vulnerable subordinate – the pornographic stereotype of the submissive female reflects situations where women are in positions such as maids, secretaries, or schoolgirls. So what is it about Secretary that saves it from reinforcing this stereotype? It’s the complex character of Lee, who exhibits increasing confidence as the story progresses. Lee and Grey forge a strong psychological and sexual bond. As their relationship becomes more overt, initially with Grey as the dominant and Lee as the submissive, Lee learns to accept herself and to express her masochism in a situation which is, ironically, less harmful to herself.
Her typing mistakes become deliberate and her participation in Grey’s games sees Lee’s sexuality blossom. She begins to control how she wants him to see her, leaving sexy pictures of herself on his desk. She becomes more assertive as she finds ways to provoke him when his attentions wane.
It is Grey who becomes ashamed of his sexuality, at one point writing her a letter saying “I’m sorry. This is disgusting. I don’t know why I’m like this,” eventually ending the relationship out of guilt, declaring “You have to go or I won’t stop,” even though Lee clearly doesn’t want him to. When Grey fires her, the angry slap Lee gives him is harder than any of the smacks he’s given her backside.
Grey loathes himself so much that he cannot believe that Lee craves what he gives her “We can’t do this 24 hours a day,” he argues. “Why not!?” she retorts. The trope of abused woman and controlling man is inverted. Lee rejects a conventional relationship by breaking her engagement to Peter, and goes on a mission to win Grey back. She shows immense strength in her prolonged sit-in at Grey’s desk, and when Peter attempts to remove her, she physically attacks him – revealing that she is far from submissive unless she herself decides to be.
Director Steven Shainberg builds erotic tension into the film but he doesn’t objectify a woman in order to show her as a sexual being. The film discusses desire, fetishism, depression, and intimacy, and manages to strike a balance between solemnity and light-heartedness, navigating some treacherous waters.
Here is a touching tale of two cripplingly shy people, unable to communicate with each other except through S&M role-play, but we never feel that Lee is unsafe with Grey. As a contrast we witness the clearly abusive relationship between Lee’s mother and father that drives her to harming herself in the first place. In his private offices, Edward Grey creates a safer world removed from the real cruelty of the world outside.
Lee and Grey are layered characters with real chemistry, and it’s genuinely involving to watch the unusual dynamics of their relationship grow. Spader is perfect as Grey, having cornered the acting market in dysfunctional sexual males in Sex, Lies and videotape and Crash – but it’s Maggie Gyllenhaal that owns the screen. She’s sweet and sexy and fearless and handles the transition from meek to empowered without abandoning her character’s core identity in a masterful performance (pun intended).
From the sublime to the…less than sublime. I would argue that Fifty Shades Of Grey, another movie dealing with a BDSM relationship, doesn’t really offer much in the way of an erotic experience. The sex scenes are shot within predictable cinematic boundaries (i.e. maximum female nudity – minimal male nudity) and, save for the usual BDSM trappings, are not particularly provocative. Leading players Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson have little chemistry, which makes their sexual adventures seem more clinical than sexy.
50 Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson, who reportedly clashed with author E.L. James over every aspect of the film, improves it greatly by discarding the authorial voice of the book (Anastasia’s risible ‘inner goddess’) and where James’s ‘unspeakable’ written dialogue does slip through, it’s inevitably played for laughs.
James’s Mr. Grey, as played by Jamie Dornan, is blatantly a fantasy figure – a billionaire cypher filling bespoke suits, wearing thousand dollar watches and tootling around in his personal helicopter. (Mr Dornan has a task eliciting four shades out of his character, let alone 50). Dornan, with his tousled hair and manly build, is a physical match for this clichéd role – sweeping a gullible ingénue off her feet and grooming her for his needs, but disappointingly for the inexplicable number of female fans, the movie features little of Dornan and rather a lot of Johnson.
The female is submissive to the point of baring all from every angle, whereas the guy is dominant enough to keep the camera from straying anywhere he doesn’t want it to – the ‘hot guy’ draw is the con-trick of the movie. The herculean effort comes from Dakota Johnson, who works hard with director Taylor-Johnson to salvage the character of Anastasia Steele, the book’s simpering ninny.
Taylor-Johnson attempts to imbue Ana with some vestiges of empowerment – when Grey goes too far, Ana posits the comment that maybe a man who desires to hurt women (always consensually) ought, perhaps, to look within himself? The move then offers an unresolved ending (in order to prepare further takers for the sequels).
Shainberg’s film Secretary, like the relationship it explores, is not for everybody, but it does what good films do; it makes us ponder and re-evaluate and entertains us during the process. Despite of what one might feel about S&M, and unlike Fifty Shades of Grey, Secretary succeeds in being genuinely erotic – not because of kinkiness or nudity, but because we observe two people struggling with their sexuality and then bonding satisfyingly and intimately.
With 50 Shades of Grey Sam Taylor-Johnson makes a game attempt, but only succeeds in crafting a slick, unexceptional film as vacant as Christian Grey’s high-rise apartment.
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