Secretary - Lilith Likes to Watch

Title: Secretary
Year: 2002
Starring: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader
Director: Steven Shainberg
Synopsis: A young woman, recently released from a mental hospital, gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer, where their employer-employee relationship turns into a sexual, sadomasochistic one. - Via IMDB
Lilith's Notes: It was a mainstream BDSM movie before 50 Shades of Grey.

"I've been doing it since 7th grade."

I've been promising this review for months, so no preamble, let's just get into it.

Secretary is a movie I have personal conflict with. It's one of the movies that explains a lot of things about me. If Bram Stoker's Dracula was a catalyst for pre-pubescent Lilith, then Secretary was a highlighter. But at the time of my first viewing, I didn't like the film. It made me uncomfortable in ways I didn't understand.

I think part of my problem is James Spader. I never really understood where he was coming from. He was this weird twitchy, sweaty guy with very little charisma and no charm. The casting was just off for me. Imagine, you will, Micheal Keaton.

Edward, in the movie, obviously has a history of trying to find the perfect submissive. His first secretary failed, and his ex wife comments on how submissive Lee is. So why is he so flummoxed around her? I guess I'm missing something but it just doesn't ring true to me.

So much said without a single word.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, likewise is kind of plain and mousy but in her case that was the point. Lee finds herself, her determination, her confidence, through their little escapades. Gyllenhaal carries this entire film, subtle expressions in her eyes and face communicate everything she needs to.

It's not a particularly pretty film. The lighting and camera work is all flat and there's only one or two really striking shots. The costuming and set design do a lot of work and the blocking is good at times. The single continuous shot of Lee in the opening of the film is good but there's no real interesting colour except for a dream sequence and Edward's little garden. The film randomly slows down  and the shot turns graney for emphasis  or memory. There's nothing spectacular, so you watch it for the plot and performances.

So, let's address the big grey elephant in the room. Yes. This movie predates the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon by over a decade. When 50 Shades came out, this movie tried to rebrand itself, claiming to be "The Original Mr. Grey" and they're not wrong. I really wish this movie had been the sensation because it does a better job explaining the difference between BDSM and abusive relationships. Lee has most the power. Lee initiates the scenes. Lee can take whatever Edward throws at her, longer than even he can.

A nice shot.
The movie doesn't delve into concepts like sub-space or anything, but it does touch on the importance of aftercare, which I didn't know existed until I saw this movie. The way Edward so tenderly bathes Lee after her endurance test to be with him, just puts me in awe every time I watch it. There's a shot where he'd toweling her off and she looks so strong and commanding, and he's the servant and I just love it. Also I think this might be where I got my love for wedding dresses...

It's too perfect.
The epilogue to the movie crystallizes everything, what it means to be a sub and dom. Once more Lee initiates the scene, preparing it for when Edward gets home from the office.

I don't know what more I can say. As I grow as a person, my enjoyment of this film grows with me. I've seen it 3 times now and I like it more each time. It still has flaws which I don't think I'll ever understand but it's a unique film that feels ahead of its time. If you haven't seen it, you should. What 50 Shades gets wrong, Secretary  does right. And it did it first.

Best Moment: The bathing scene.

Worst Moment: The unclear motivations of Edward Grey's character.


NEXT TIME: I might take a little break. I might not. Either way, the next movie is The Handmaiden.