HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word. So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore….our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection. Here, to prove that we at Horror Cult films do have a soft side, Dr Lenera is looking at what in his possibly twisted opinion is the most romantic film of 2002, Secretary.
HCF REWIND NO.12:SECRETARY 
AVAILABLE ON DVD:Now
RUNNING TIME:1oo mins
REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Lee Holloway, an extremely shy, awkward and sensitive young woman, adjusts to normal life after having been hospitalised because of an injury due to her tendency for self-harm, but her drunken, sometimes violent father is still addicted to the booze. She learns to type, starts to date a friend called Peter, and goes for an interview as a secretary for a somewhat troubled and eccentric lawyer, Edward Grey. Despite her stilted social skills and unprofessional appearance, he hires her and proceeds to treat her virtually as a slave. Though irritated by her typos, he starts to become aroused by her submissive behaviour and she starts to enjoy everything he asks…………
There aren’t many mainstream [though Secretary doesn’t really have the feel of a mainstream movie at all, so maybe it’s wrong to call it one] films about sado-masochistic relationships, and the ones that are usually turn out to be very poor [remember the abysmal 9 ½ Weeks?]. Secretary though, is a complete surprise. I suppose it is a romantic comedy of sorts, but considering I personally can’t stand most romantic comedies, at least of the modern kind [they did used to do those films really well decades ago], I think that is doing the movie a severe disservice! This is an intelligent, funny and clever film that delves into areas which most films wouldn’t want to go near, but does it with a light touch while still handling its’ subject matter with care. It’s also, amazingly, rather sweet and touching, something I never expected from the movie. Then again, more than being about sado-masochism, it’s both a psychological study of a poor, alienated young woman who is crying out for some love and affection, and also a story of two damaged souls who find a connection. Those are things that most of us can probably relate to on some level, even if we are not into bondage! It also has one of the finest performances of its’ decade. The film was based on a short story of the same name by Mary Gaitskill in a collection of tales called Bad Behaviour. Writer Erin Cressida Wilson and director Sidney Shainberg, who also worked on the script, added some humour and more importantly changed the ending to a happier one. Now I’m not always a fan of happy endings, but I think it was the correct decision for this particular film. Shainberg wanted to show that dominant-submissive relationship could be healthy for some people. Surprisingly, the film was both an easy shoot [except for one incident where they found they had got a permit for the wrong park and got the crew to distract the police while they filmed the scenes required] and had no interference from the censors, though ten years before I doubt that would have been the case.
You know if you’re going to like Secretary right from the opening scene, where, before any credits, we see Lee walking around with her hands tied to a curtain rail and with a piece of paper in her mouth, obviously carrying out some task. The scene bravely throws you right in the deep end but works because it’s also a little funny [and I know upon reading up on this movie that was intended]. It also wasn’t originally a part of the script and was added during filming. After this we flash back a little and get to know Lee before she meets Edward. She is so fragile and her home life is so sad that we almost understand why she likes to self-harm herself, and all this is done with great subtlety. For example, we learn her father is a drunk and possibly beats her mother [we see him knock her down once, but it’s unlikely that was the only time], and there’s a scene at a party where the father hugs Lee and she’s extremely uncomfortable. With brilliant economy worthy of a film from the 30s or the 40s, the film seems to hint at that he may have sexually abused her, without explicitly stating it. Soon she meets Edward and initially he’s a slightly scary character. His dark, cavernous office initially resembles an abode from a horror film [and I love the ‘secretary wanted’ sign hanging outside like a ‘vacancy’ sign on a motel] and Edward is like Dracula or some other evil creature about to entrap his latest visitor. The scene was actually intended to evoke Little Red Riding Hood and Lee’s coat was going to be red at first, but that was considered too obvious. This tense feeling disappears quite soon though, partly because the early stages of the central relationship are done with a humorous edge. Soon though, despite their increasingly extreme behaviour, we really start to want these two people to get together. Dare I say it, the film becomes rather heart warming towards the end, without becoming overly soft or mawkish, though it’s a fine line to tread and it could have all gone very wrong without the careful handling.
Despite what you might think, this is not a sexually explicit film, and much of the bondage stuff is just hinted at [there’s a great montage partly satirising the typical montage you get in a more ‘normal’ love story], but there are scenes which are very daring and go beyond what many people would probably want to see. A good example is the bit where Edward ‘punishes’ Lee by telling her to bend over the table while he whacks her on the bare bottom really hard. The scene goes on for ages, far longer than some would think is necessary, but look at the way, after the first ‘hit’, that Edward pauses and waits for Lee’s reaction. I’m sure that if she’d said she hated it he would not have continued. Look at also the way also, at the end, her little finger slides round his, an image which somehow manages the feat of being disturbing and sweet at the same time. Gyllenhaul refused to wear padding for the scene and it was virtually done for real……….fifteen times, resulting in the actress crying and unable to continue, not to mention an extremely bruised bottom. It’s notable that Edward doesn’t seem to actually wantt o have sex with Lee, just to have some kind of control which for him is arousing and a substitute for genuine intimacy. We don’t learn that much about Edward, with many things often just hinted at or mentioned in passing, but we do start to like this lonely, empty shell of a man. We like him more than Peter, the ‘other guy’, who, though undoubtedly a ‘nice guy’, comes across as too much of a nice guy, though that was probably intentional.
I’ve mentioned already that at times the film is funny and, unless you find the subject matter ‘sick’ [in which case you probably wouldn’t watch the film anyway!], there is much that is humorous, without actually poking fun at the characters. My favourite bit of this nature is when Peter and Lee are trying to have sex, which is set to a very strange cover version of ‘I Will Survive’. First of all Lee puts his hand on her rear, then lies across him showing her bottom to him, then is clearly bored when actually starting to have ‘proper’ sex. Now I’ve never seen any film by Sidney Sheinberg before, but he deserves so much credit for getting such a hard film to come off. The direction is fairly unobtrusive but quite clever. Sheinberg relies a lot on the interiors to create atmosphere, especially the main office set which has different elements to it everywhere you look, and there’s much employment of colour, for instance after Lee has had her first sexual encounter with Edward and is bathed in white light, something which is in no way realistic but very obviously symbolic. If you look around there are fetishistic objects all over the place, and also note the constant use of water, obviously symbolic of Lee being submerged in her life and starting to rise above it. The clothes the characters wear also seem to show their state of mind, and look at the way Lee is made to look more and more attractive throughout. Secretary was a very low budget film and didn’t allow much for sets-the office was a combination of different interiors- but it doesn’t really look it.
Of course Maggie Gyllenhaal’s performance really is fantastic and deserved an Oscar, though predictably the subject matter was too daring to be considered by the stuffy Academy. This is a piece of acting that goes to places most actresses wouldn’t dare to go to, and most importantly makes her character’s actions and developing needs entirely fitting for her and almost easy to understand. Gyllenhaal projects such intense vulnerability but always seems able to see the humour when fitting. James Spader is also very good but we’ve seen elements of his character is many of his previous roles, from White Palace to Crash, and I think he sometimes overdoes the mugging a little. Angelo Badalamenti’s piano –dominated score is perhaps a little too prevalent for this particular film but does constantly add its’ own commentary on the action on screen-this composer often shows a knack for getting inside character’s states of mind. I was sure Secretary could have been dreadful, but it’s actually a great achievement by all concerned. It’s easily the most unashamedly romantic movie of it’s year too [then again, 2002 was a pretty dreadful year for films of that nature, unless you count Solaris!].