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Movie Review

In Buoyant 'Secretary,' Romance for Consenting Adults

September 20, 2002|MANOHLA DARGIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Long ago, back when Mrs. Guy Ritchie was known as Madonna and slithering about in various states of indiscretion with the likes of Vanilla Ice, sadomasochism was all the rage. In film after film, in one fashion magazine after another, someone in a dog collar could be seen valiantly trying to stir the air with menace. For the most part, this predatory chic was essentially about poses--gestures of defiance rather than genuine subversion--as well as the timeless allure of leather and photographer Helmut Newton. On screen or in magazines, the only real fetishism anyone expressed was for commodities.

In the new movie "Secretary," there's a fleeting image of two lovers, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, re-creating one of Newton's most scandalous images, that of a beautiful young woman wearing a riding saddle. In the original photograph, the sleekly made-up model is wearing jodhpurs, boots and precious little else underneath the saddle, along with a smile as serenely private and mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa. In "Secretary," Gyllenhaal's Lee Holloway is fully dressed, but instead of wrapping her mouth around a secret, she's clamped down on a big, leafy carrot. If not for the unwieldy vegetable she looks as if she'd be giggling (she's having fun, not plumbing the abyss).

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 22, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit--The photo credit for the picture that accompanied the review of the movie "Secretary" in Friday's Calendar was wrong. The photo is by Holly Stein.

Loosely based on a short story by literary naughty girl Mary Gaitskill (from her fiction collection "Bad Behavior"), "Secretary" is a gently bent old-fashioned romance about two people who are so ideally suited for each other that they seemed doomed to never get it together. When we first meet Lee she's being released from an institution following a nervous breakdown. Now in her early 20s, she has the baby-doll voice of a woman who can't reconcile her adult body with the tiny person she feels herself to be; it's no wonder she's been hacking away at her flesh since she hit adolescence.

That's not healthy, but the best and smartest move director Steven Shainberg makes, beyond his superb casting, is refusing to make a huge deal out of Lee's pathology. Cutting herself is a mournful, solitary ritual for Lee, not a psychological carnival act. It's gross and it's disturbing, at times quietly harrowing, but what Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson understand is that the ritual belongs to Lee (it's the only thing that does). Mucking about in Lee's history and all the possible reasons she cuts herself won't do her or the story any good. It isn't this woman's stigmata that need tending to--it's the rest of her.

This sounds heavier than it plays. For all the dolorous trim, "Secretary" is a genial romance that maintains a surprisingly buoyant tone throughout, notwithstanding some of the writers' sporadic dips into pop Freudianism. Lee's parents fight, her dad drinks and sis is bodacious and blond, but happily we don't spend much time with them. The relationship that matters, that gives the film its spark, its cheeky humor and its reason for being, is the one Lee develops with her new boss, Mr. Grey (Spader), an obsessive-compulsive lawyer with a fanatical loathing of typing errors and a predilection for sexual dominance. It's a match made in dysfunctional heaven.

Inside Mr. Grey's strangely appointed warren of offices, amid the sort of cross-cultural clutter that the Victorians favored--Oriental hangings, swirling William Morris--style wall coverings, along with the odd classical flourish--Lee discovers herself. One day, after berating her for making typing errors (he doesn't like computers), Mr. Grey surprises Lee with a spanking; she surprises herself still more by not protesting. And so a love story not like every other begins.

In this hothouse atmosphere, Lee blossoms like one of Mr. Grey's orchids. She begins to walk more confidently, to dress better; her hair grows glossier, her complexion rosier. For her, love doesn't just hurt--it stings, even through sensible A-line skirts.

Although you wouldn't know it to judge by one of its posters, "Secretary" is pretty tame, more sweet than salacious. You can understand the distributor wanting to squeeze as much business out of it as possible, but they've done the filmmakers and actors a disservice by sleazing up the marketing. In the poster in question, a woman is shown facing away from the camera, bent over, flaunting her posterior, stilettos and flexibility. The image is misleading not only because the woman is wearing a short dress and the sort of heels they sell on Hollywood Boulevard (rather than Lee's modest attire), but because her head is totally obscured. "Secretary" is all about faces, particularly Gyllenhaal's, in whose face you can read a veritable "Kama Sutra" of expressionism.

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