A look at the film ‘Secretary’ directed by Steven Shainberg.
As a species, humans are making slow progress. Evolution has got us to a point where we can walk upright and use opposable thumbs to post duck-face Instagram selfies while medical science gives us the opportunity to live a little longer to buy a beige Honda Prelude and drive it half the legal speed limit wherever we go.
Despite this, we’re still mentally very immature; we’re obsessed with materialistic possessions and wealth, we’ve only really started to break barriers with respects to proper acceptance of gay-rights and many of us still laugh at fart jokes.
It’s interesting to note that while we have a naughty giggle over things like ’50 Shades of Grey’, as soon as something considered deviant enters into the arena of real-life, suddenly everybody is staring, making snarky comments and tutting about disgusting displays of vulgarity and how you can’t go anywhere without having other people’s sex lives stuffed down your throat.
I’ve had a friend or two who were into kink and they were not at all ashamed of who they were or what they did. What was especially interesting was that it wasn’t always about sex. The things they did, they did because of how it made them feel within themselves. On occasion, it would act as a catalyst for some sexual play, but predominantly, it was their way of life.
How is this any different to someone who races cars for a living? Jenson Button raced cars for many years because he enjoyed it. He was good at it, it probably felt great and it allowed him to accomplish great things. You can’t compare him to the angry chav who spends his nights doing donuts in the supermarket carpark to impress the girls in the hopes for a cheap shag.
The sad fact remains, these people who live differently to the rest of are branded as “deviants” and “fetishists”, the words almost spat out as though they make one feel dirty for even mentioning them. It is because of this sort of attitude that the subject appears from time to time in our entertainment media to try and help us to understand.
A poor example that did nothing for understanding, acceptance or education into the BDSM community was EL James’ ‘Fifty Shades’. This was widely disowned by anyone with even a passing acquaintance with “the lifestyle”.
A much better, but criminally lesser-known story is the one I wish to talk about in this essay, the excellent little independent film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal; ‘Secretary’.
It is a story about a young woman – who has a history of self harm – trying to find her place in the world. She has a sort-of boyfriend who is weak and drippy but is the best she can manage with her self esteem issues. She gets a small, simple secretarial role for a little law firm and that’s when she meets her unusual but alluring boss who helps her embrace a lifestyle she had never considered.
The films feels a little slow paced at first and may struggle to command your attention. Gyllenhaal handles the role well but the setting up her character for us to want to care about and have interest in takes a bit of time. Everything changes the instant James Spader arrives.
He’s an interesting chap. He’s been in a few big films and a fair few smaller ones. I believe it was spader who once said he only accepts roles where he feels he can do something a little different and grow a bit as an actor. He always gives a character a depth that many actors could only hope to manage and you never see him stuck in a rut of repeating action, or comedic, or nerdy, etc, etc.
In ‘Secretary’, Spader is a powerful, dominant personality who has a darker side. You can always see the pain in his soul as he tries to hold back on his urges and the tension between him and Gyllenhaal is sometimes so tense, you could cut through it with the blunt end of road cone. If the other actors are good a what they do, he absolutely nails it and is undoubtedly the one who really makes this film amazing.
You’re probably asking yourself why I have so much beef with ’50 Shades’ when the two sound quite similar. Simply put, ‘Secretary’ was first and ’50 Shades’ was a bit of a poor rip-off. Additionally, the way the two go about handling the subject of dominance and submission is radically different.
E.L James made the mistake of making people who engage in BDSM look like complete nut-cases who need to cause actual bodily harm and severe phycological scars on others to derive pleasure. While there are some people out there who do have that outlook, like Geri Halliwell who subjected the world to that monstrosity of a solo singing career, it is not typical and should not be portrayed as a standard.
‘Secretary’ deals with it a little more sensitively by giving us two people who are a little damaged or perhaps just struggling to find their place in the world. They function but never fit in. It’s only once they discover their dynamic together that they begin to realise that they work well together and that allows the study of their kink to grow much more organically.
Unlike the other film, ‘Secretary’ never promises to be a steamy, sex film. It is a straight-up character driven study into the human condition. There is brief nudity, some light bondage and a little bottom slapping. It’s all in context as well. These are things that occur as a result of the characters, not things that were shoe-horned in because someone wanted to film it and had to figure out how to make it fit afterwards.
The most impressive thing about ‘Secretary’ is that it is a film that will appeal to a much wider audience. Film enthusiasts will enjoy it for being pleasantly put together, people in the BDSM scene will appreciate it for being respectful to their lifestyle and people not in the scene will appreciate a fascinating film with glimpse into the other side without having to feel dirty or tarnished as a result.
If I were to pick one thing that pisses me off a bit about the film, it would be that Gyllenhaal’s character is given to us as a self-harmer with a history of mental illness. This is almost a suggestion that to want to be submissive, one needs to be completely broken. Not all people with Tourette’s Syndrome go around screaming obscenities all the time and not all submissive personalities are self destructive. Perpetuating that line does not do any favours.
That said, I’ll allow it because ultimately it works out for the character and gives us the chance to see some personal development. As she finds her place, so she is able to begin to let go of the things that harmed her before.
While there’s no huge artistic flare to the picture, it doesn’t need it. To try and make it artsy would have been detrimental. The power lies in the script and the performances and these two elements take centre-stage hand in hand.
So often, lifestyle films end up being a bit seedy, a bit sleazy and shockingly under produced with actors who can’t act, directors who can’t direct and producers with no money. This film breaks free from that stereotype and delivers a lifestyle film that satisfies on all counts.
And the very final shot, those last couple of seconds before films cuts to the end credits is possibly one of the most powerful closers I’ve seen in a very long time. The breaking of the fourth-wall to make us – the viewer – feel like a voyeur, an intruder on the lives of the characters and that steadfast look of defiance that says, “I’m fine with who I am, who are you to tell me it’s wrong?”
It’s just perfect. There’s no other word for it. Chances are, if you’re into the scene, you probably already know about ‘Secretary’ and will probably agree with most of what I’ve said. If you’re not a freak, a pervert, a weirdo, a fetishist, or a deviant, you may have managed to pass this one by. But don’t give it a wide berth. Don’t do that awful thing and try not to look at it whilst grimacing and shaking your head because of the foul filth and don’t treat it like an elephant in the room that you try so desperately hard not to talk about.
It’s not dangerous, it’s not porn, it’s not something to hide away from. It’s how some people live. Perhaps they don’t understand your desire to enslave yourself to a God. Perhaps they don’t understand your tendency to blow off steam with a round of golf. But thy don’t give you a hard time about it.
Give ‘Secretary’ a chance. Open your mind to the possibilities that kink isn’t a dangerous or evil thing. And if your mind is already open, then you’ve nothing to lose with this funny, heartbreaking, heartwarming tale of finding out where you belong.
A reason why you should watch it: A much more balanced look into submissive and dominant relationships without the awful melodrama or disrespectful nonsense of that ’50 Shades’ tripe.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: Because your sensibilities can’t possibly compute the idea that a so called “deviant” lifestyle can ever be anything other than evil and corrupt and you can’t bear the thought of being proven wrong.