Warning: this thought piece contains spoilers.
‘The Secretary’ clearly helped inspire some of the things that happened to me. This isn’t the first time I’ve been made to review erotica with the intention of provoking such a realisation. What a smug bastard I work for! It’s an incredibly good film, though. Originally based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill. Picture and prose share many of the same scenes, but the characters and storylines are very different.
The movie follows Lee Holloway (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), a troubled young woman who gets a secretarial job. Her boss is a lawyer – Edward Grey (James Spader) – and the pair go on to develop a weird, BDSM, working relationship. The movie is quirky, eccentric and highly original, but it actually follows the traditional romance storyline, complete with a married happily-ever-after ending.
Miss Holloway and Mr Grey are peculiar and intriguing individuals. Lee is traumatised by her father’s destructive alcoholism and self-harms in response. Her new BDSM relationship helps her heal, psychologically, and her character grows throughout the film – becoming stronger, healthier and happier, as she basks in the strangely-empowering liberation of submission.
The change is dramatically visible: she starts off awkward and dowdy, yet ends up looking like a sex-goddess movie star. Hollywood often attempts the ‘dowdy-to-sexy’ trope, but usually fails to make their gorgeous leading lady look convincingly unattractive to begin with (yes, she’s got glasses and a baggy jumper, but she still looks hot). By contrast, Gyllenhaal starts the film looking profoundly unsexy – an impressive feat of acting, considering her stunning natural beauty.
Edward Grey is a mysterious eccentric, radiating unusual vibrations of nervous energy into the atmosphere around him. He’s charismatic… in an intense and unsettling kind of way. He tells Lee he’s shy, but ‘overcomes it’, and Spader’s performance perfectly captures that complexity. Grey is deeply conflicted regarding his sadistic streak, but his attempts to repress it always fail and lead to immorality, guilt and pain (the bad kind). Until the relationship with Lee heals him, as well.
The script is absolutely delicious – a masterclass in multi-layered dialogue. So many mundane sentences with deeply-meaningful phrases hidden within them (or jumping out of them) – ‘I just need you… to remember to go through the files.’ The film-craft is equally artful: what lusciously humid eroticism to watch a man moistening his exotic flowers with mistings of steam… and then his strong hands delicately penetrating an injection-needle between the petals. (‘Oh! Mr Grey!’)
The punishment scenes are sizzling hot! I loved watching her read out a professionally worded letter whilst receiving a spanking. The word ‘grateful’ conspicuously jumping between contexts. The orgasmic pronunciation of his name. The look on her face: totally overwhelmed (I love how he later uses this word, whilst explaining to a client why the office has fallen behind with work). And it’s all about the little touches… with the little fingers.
So many of these little details – all the little kinks that rumple up to make something kinky – so individual and personal. His irritation at her ‘sniffling’, her initial excitement at being imperiously ignored, his exercise routine to psyche up for domination games, the submissive monologues she recites out loud in imaginary role-play, the ‘small sacrifice’ she offers him via a letter that’s never sent… and the worm incident, of course. The whole thing scintillates with eccentric eroticism.
You’d have to have a heart made of stone to not feel sorry for Lee’s boyfriend/fiancé – a gentle, caring man who wants nothing more than to marry the girl he’s loved since childhood. But he’s too nice, too boring, and he doesn’t understand BDSM – so he gets dumped in the most spectacularly hurtful and humiliating way. I imagine most viewers were not surprised that she chose her domineering, possessive boss over her gentle, caring boyfriend (the fact this is so easy to understand is surely part of the reason the world is such a fucked-up place!).
We only get little sniffs of Mr Grey’s history. Very little is given away, but what we do get is tantalising. His secretary routine has clearly been going on for a while – confirmed by the glimpse of his previous employee and the lights set up around the ‘secretary wanted’ sign. I’d love to know the story with his coat-trampling ex. Was she his wife? His first secretary? His submissive? His Dominant? Although I love that the story remains teasingly untold. Wonderfully ambiguous use of the word ‘settlement’ to highlight the mystery.
Questions are raised concerning the connections between sex and BDSM. At one point, Grey tells Lee he’s ‘not interested in sex, at all’. And at the end of the film, Lee poses her boyfriend the wonderful question: ‘Does this look sexual to you?’ However, it’s obvious they’re both getting extreme sexual thrills from the BDSM, so I’d definitely call it ‘sexual’. The connections between self-harm and masochism are also artfully explored – no real conclusions, but plenty of curious questions.
The ‘therapy’ scene is psychologically spot-on. His process: surprise her, pressure her, make her speak using a confident voice, praise her, break it up with humour, serious talk (inappropriately probing her sex life). He then tells her he’s shy, the same as her (highlighting personal connection, whilst hinting that difficulties can be overcome). The beautiful phrase: ‘you should really feel free… to discuss your problems with me’ (hypnotists call this analogical marking).
The hard talk and hot chocolate come together. He eloquently articulates and rationalises her behaviour, asks if she’s ready to listen, activates the ‘yes acceptance state’ (another hypnosis phrase) by making her answer positively multiple times. Finally, he delivers firm instructions for her to ‘never, ever cut yourself again.’ She affirms obedience to these commands multiple times and then gets rewarded with a nice walk home, through the park. It’s not orthodox therapy, but I can see why it works for Lee. I could analyse this scene all day. It’s exquisitely ingenious.
Mr Grey liberates Lee by breaking down her psychological ‘wall’ and, at the end of the film, she returns the favour. Heroically seizing the initiative to change the defining storylines of both their lives, from tragedy to romance. It’s a classic love-story of the traditional variety. (What’s more romantic than publicly pissing your fiancé’s mother’s wedding dress to prove how submissive you are to another man?)
I read the short story, the day after watching the film. I was kind-of disappointed, at first, but rereading it a couple of days later, I appreciated it much more. It shares key scenes with the film (the hiring, the spanking, the back-spunking), but is actually a very different story. It isn’t a love-story and there’s no alcoholic dad, self-harming or therapy. Basically, it lacks a lot of the best bits. In this case, the film is better than the original prose.
To be fair, the prose version is very short, so could never hope to go as deep as the film. And it’s a very good short story, which only looks lacking when compared to the exceptionally good movie. The short story is poetically worded, with vivid scene-setting and colourful characters. The lack of romance really serves to highlight the darkness of the BDSM… the lawyer’s abusive and non-consensual behaviour is not ‘excused’ by love. And the secretary is left brutally conflicted, as she repeatedly masturbates over memories of the horrible violations she suffered. The lack of any clear morals to the story gives it a gritty, realistic feel.
Thinking about the movie again, I personally found the red pen marking profoundly erotic. This is partly because, whilst working on my book and blog, a man has been marking my prose with the same kind of red pen. So I really share Lee’s tingles of excitement as she sees those white papers lashed with red streaks. And I also recognise the deeply erotic atmosphere that grows over time, from the ticklish feeling of working in ‘his’ office… for ‘him’. It’s overwhelmingly sexy.
There’s one BDSM game played by Grey and Lee that I’m relieved my boss didn’t copy – at least he didn’t make me write my stories on a fucking typewriter!