Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the complicated protagonist of Secretary, stares straight at the viewer for several uncomfortable seconds in the film’s final shot. “Go ahead,” she seems to be saying without words, “judge me. I dare you. I double-dog dare you.”
It’s easy to understand the temptation to taker her up on the offer. After all, we’ve come to expect our female film roles to fall into clearly defined packages. There are “the girl” parts, which exist primarily to give a male protagonist someone to react to, protect or screw. There are “you go, girl” parts, which exist primarily to provide emotionally strong, empowered fodder for Oprah’s Book Club devotees. And there is the occasional small, independent film character not-so-easily pigeonholed, but unlikely to offend the typically progressive mindset of the typical audience member for small, independent films.
So what do we make of a woman who gets spanked by her boss—and likes it? Can we wrap our pre-programmed outrage—whether conservative or liberal—around a woman whose needs are so outside the box of our regular thinking that she can’t even see the box from where she sits? Can we come to terms with the idea that this flawed, freaky, funny film could actually be a remarkably uplifting love story?
It certainly doesn’t start out looking that way. After a teasing flash-forward prologue, we meet Lee on the day she emerges from a stay in a mental hospital. An emotional china cup who has been ritually cutting herself since adolescence, the twentysomething Lee returns home to live with her alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie) and overprotective mother (Leslie Ann Warren). In a tentative step toward some kind of independence, Lee applies for a secretarial job at the office of attorney E. Edward Gray (James Spader). Edward, Lee soon discovers, has his own rituals and idiosyncrasies, including a penchant for spanking Lee when she makes a transcription mistake. And Lee, much to her own amazement, realizes that Edward’s treatment may be exactly what she’s been looking for.
The extent to which you view that scenario as pure evil—sexual harassment played as kinky romantic comedy—depends largely on how you perceive the two characters. Spader’s spooky, twitchy mannerisms work brilliantly here to create a portrait in compulsion and self-loathing. Edward has gotten so used to the idea that his impulses are vile that he has no idea how to deal with a woman who seems turned on by them, and Spader captures that confusion with a strange grace. But few things you’ll see on film this year will be as graceful as Maggie Gyllenhaal’s remarkable performance. Doing things with her wide, piercing eyes that should be bullet points in any class on film acting, Gyllenhaal gives Lee’s sense of discovery such joy that it’s almost heartbreaking.
And here is where the naysayers will get it most cruelly wrong. As tempting as it may be to reduce Secretary’s central relationship to one between a disturbed woman and a victimizing authority figure, it’s also a nasty oversimplification. While the conservative knee-jerk response to alternative sexuality is predictable, the liberal knee-jerk response damns Lee for finding her bliss in a way that breaks the feminist theory rules. She shouldn’t want to find happiness through being dominated, goes that reasoning; she should reject being fulfilled, perhaps for the first time in her life, on the off-chance that years of therapy might make her healthy enough at some as-yet-unknown date to want a “healthy” relationship. Secretary exposes that mindset for the self-righteous, narrow-minded crapload that it is. What could be more satisfying than watching two miserable people find a mutual understanding they thought they’d never find?
As a cinematic experience, Secretary is far from perfect, slogging through some soft pacing and broad supporting performances. Director Steven Shainberg—working from Erin Cressida Wilson’s adaptation of a Mary Gaitskill short story—seems to lose his way whenever the focus isn’t on Lee and Edward. But when his camera is prowling through the magnificent, David Lynch-ian hallways of Edward’s office, he finds something weird and wonderful. Happy endings don’t come with a stranger aftertaste than the one you’ll find in Secretary, but it is a happy ending. Try not to see that happiness written all over Maggie Gyllenhaal’s face in that final shot. Go ahead—I dare you.