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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

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    Indie Flicks: Secretary

    It’s a sadomasochism love story. This seems like, perhaps, a strange if not somewhat paradoxical statement; but it’s true. Steven Shainberg’s “Secretary,” the film that gave emerging star and indie darling Maggie Gyllenhaal her big break, is the most romantic (maybe the only romantic) tale of S’M that you might ever encounter.

    Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) is a timid young woman who, having just been released from a mental institution, is trying to readjust to the world without cutting herself. Her older sister is a newlywed, her father is an alcoholic, and her mother puts up with it all with a painfully artificial smile. Lee attempts to establish some sense of normalcy in her life by dating her high school friend Peter (Jeremy Davies), and she applies for a job as a secretary.

    Hired on the spot, Lee works for E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a serious and eccentric lawyer. Despite her relationship with Peter, Lee develops a peculiar attraction for her stern boss, who occasionally softens and treats her like more of a friend than an employee. Mr. Grey also seems to be drawn to Lee, and it is not long before we see why.

    Lee and Mr. Grey’s relationship changes from professional to sexual when one day Mr. Grey has Lee bend over his desk to receive a severe spanking for a typo-ridden letter. What at first plays out on Gyllenhaal’s face as something humiliating and slightly frightening, turns out to be liberating and pleasurable for the shy girl with masochistic desires.

    Gyllenhaal plays Lee with a doe-eyed innocence and meek, mousy demeanor that perfect when portraying her submissive naughtiness. The contrast of Lee’s personality and behavior doesn’t seem in any way contradictory for the character herself. The depiction of Lee is even more powerful in her chemistry with Spader’s Mr. Grey. The two play off of each other’s desire and suffering. While Lee is releasing her anguish from trouble and repression at home, Mr. Grey is fighting his need to play out these sadistic fantasies, even if Lee really desires them.

    Though the pair has an unconventional but indisputably intimate relationship, Lee realizes that she wants the other kind of intimacy from Mr. Grey, as well, as she realizes that she’s falling in love with him. Their sadomasochistic relationship has allowed Lee to find herself and define exactly what she wants. Mr. Grey begins to fight Lee’s advances in an attempt to fight what he feels are wrong and sick desires. It is clear, however, that he is falling in some kind of love with Lee as well.

    What is so clever and almost surprising about this film is how it pulls you into the world of these two conflicted people who are so perfect for each other. Regardless of your feelings about sadomasochism, you can’t help but root for Lee and Mr. Grey and hope that they can find some way to make their love work.

    The line that Shainberg teeters between the twisted and mundane is brilliant and fascinating. There is also just the right amount of humor injected into the film to make it more comfortable to watch, but not to make a joke out of the characters’ situation. Ultimately, Secretary is an intriguing and endearing story about finding love and self-affirmation, no matter what kind kinky stuff you’re in to.

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