Secretary is not the first film ever made about S&M but director Steven Shainberg hopes you’ll think otherwise. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) likes to cut herself and Edward Hardy Esq. (James Spader) likes to get freaky at the workplace. Once Edward starts slapping Holloway on the ass, it’s not long before she gets rid of the blades in her sewing kit. The “six months later” scenario that opens the self-conscious Secretary is a double-edged sword. That Lee can successfully multi-task while chained to an S&M stick more or less indicates that there will be more to Edward’s behavior than a bark and scowl. Shainberg may eliminate the element of discovery with this cutesy preface but there’s something strangely appealing in seeing how Lee falls into Edward’s hanky-panky trap. Then again, the scenario presented here is an icky one. Lee eventually wields some power yet she remains about as submissive and passive by the end of the film as she does in the beginning. While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with Edward making a masochist out of the suicidal Lee, Secretary seems to say less about the power struggle between these two lovers than it does about S&M as therapy session. To his credit, Shainberg is careful not to talk down to his audience by dishing out the S&M lexicon. Edward remains a troublesome cypher, entirely too one-dimensional and cold for the nurturer he pretends to be. Secretary may fray some feminist nerves but its text is entirely more frustrating for keeping things tame than it is for positing a Grimm scenario where broken women find salvation in the arms of a sadistic Prince Charming. In the end, it also treats the subject of S&M with a kind of confused interest worthy of Madonna. Indeed, you can almost hear the singer providing vague narration for the film: “Poor is the man whose pleasure depends on the permission of another.”
- Steven Shainberg
- Erin Cressida Wilson
- Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Patrick Bauchau, Stephen McHattie, Oz Perkins, Jessica Tuck, Amy Locane, Lesley Ann Warren
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