After missing it in theaters and seeing the spirited ads for the home video release, I rented the movie The Secretary with Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader on DVD the other night. For those who aren't familiar with the plot, here's a short summary:
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee, a woman recently released from a treatment center for practicing self-mutilation since her early teens. Once home, she decides to escape the torture of dealing with her alcoholic father and child-like, over-protective mother by becoming a secretary and getting a job. She eventually gets a job in the office of Mr. Grey, played by James Spader. Things begin platonically enough, but, eventually Mr. Grey learns of her love of self-mutilation and directs that passion for pain as well as Lee's need for structure and discipline toward sexual dominance & submission. Soon, Lee comes to enjoy this new relationship with her boss, grows up a little because of it, and falls in love. Mr. Grey, suddenly unsure of this new love in his life, first sends Lee away and forces Lee to demonstrate the strength of her love and belief in him.
There were several things I liked about this movie. Most of important is the honesty and tenderness in the plot and the portrayal. It deals with subjects in a sensitive, un-sensational fashion that are often played with a misguided sense of comedy (see the movie adaptation of Anne Rice's Exit To Eden) or lurid thrills (Madonna's Body of Evidence being one of a series of bad erotic thrillers in the Basic Instinct mold that use different forms of sexual expression for cheap kicks) in order to make them palatable to sexually conservative middle America.
This is in no small part due to Mr. Spader's and Ms. Gyllenhaal's performances, that are honest and lack affectation. It is also due to the fact that there is really very little nudity in the film and chooses to explore its subject matter more psychologically than it does graphically (think of it as the "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" of BDSM movies.)
With that said, the film does have a few flaws. Both characters are really a mess. Lee is portrayed as psychologically unbalanced, and, Mr. Grey is... well... there is no real exploration of his past, the reasons for his attraction to Lee, or the roots of his unusual behavior. This lends itself to the idea people who pursue this lifestyle must be mentally defective in some way. I also found the resolution of the film somehow lacking... yes, Lee ends up happy, but, I was unsure as to exactly how she had grown.
Beyond all this commentary about the film, however, I found myself wondering about my attraction to this film in the first place. I guess I've always been attracted to mature and honest treatments of mature subject matter. It is because I think that I cannot be the person I am and taking the points of view that I do, without at least thinking about other viewpoints.
I also think that Hollywood's portrayal of relationships has become too, well... formulaic. As with the movie Bound, this movie is merely a twist on an old theme. Yet in taking the time to deal with that twist, the film makers and performers have put some thought and energy into its portrayal. That makes it different from many films I've seen.
on 2003-04-10 at 2:50 p.m.
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