Trent Film Society (TFS) is happy to bring you the second instalment in our February line-up of unconventional love stories: Steven Shainberg’s kinky independent romantic comedy, Secretary (2002).
Despite having been financially unsuccessful upon its release, the quirky film became a cult classic in the BDSM subculture for its realistic and sympathetic portrayal of an often misunderstood lifestyle. Previous attempts to portray BDSM in film (9 1/2 Weeks , for example) went for sensationalism instead of story. Few have been able to portray it with the wit and humour like in this film.
Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight ) as lead character Lee Holloway, the film centers around her burgeoning relationship with her employer, who is the high-powered lawyer Edward Grey, portrayed by James Spader. (If this reminds you of a certain poorly written pulp novel that depicted the BDSM subculture very inaccurately, perhaps this isn’t a coincidence.)
Recently released from hospitalization and with a history of psychiatric illness, Holloway has a tendency to self-harm and faces pressure from her overbearing family to find gainful employment. After learning touch-typing, she responds to an ad from Grey’s law firm. They are looking for a secretary and she is hired despite her social awkwardness and disorganized personality, and despite Grey’s attempts to dissuade her by explaining the work’s tedious nature.
Holloway quickly discovers that Grey’s idiosyncrasies make working for him quite demanding — Grey is the only other employee at his firm, he refuses to use computers (requiring her to use vintage typewriters), and he has zero tolerance for mistakes. After annoying him with her lack of professionalism and constant typos, he calls her into his office for disciplinary action and Holloway learns his secret: he is a closeted practitioner of BDSM, and is deeply ashamed of his desires.
After receiving a spanking from him, she begins to explore her own sexual desires for the first time and realizes she has masochism and enjoys submission, using them as an outlet for her self-destructive impulses. Unable to hide their obvious attraction to one another, the two begin a kinky sexual relationship in the workplace despite Holloway’s family encouraging her to settle down with her sometime boyfriend, Peter, whom she finds boring. (In one of the funnier scenes, she attempts to get him interested in spanking her during sex, to no avail.)
However, Grey is unable to accept his personal kink and fires Holloway. Realizing she has fallen in love with him, she becomes determined to go to any lengths to win him back, despite her family and society’s disapproval of their relationship.
Interestingly, this film is not the first time Spader has played a lawyer (The Practice) or starred in a film that explores the subject of sexuality (David Cronenberg’s Crash , Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape . Meanwhile, the film’s positive reviews brought attention to Gyllenhaal — who had just finished starring in the cult science-fiction film Donnie Darko (2001) alongside her brother, Jake — which helped establish her as a mainstream actor. The film’s limited publicity was also helped by a minor controversy over its overtly sexual themes and provocative poster.
However, it was well-received by critics and nominated for over 20 awards, including several for Gyllenhaal as best actress. Despite being hesitant to accept the role at first, Gyllenhaal agreed after discussing the film’s sexual content with Shainberg and becoming comfortable with it. Secretary’s screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson would go on to write another erotic thriller Chloe (2014) by Canadian director Atom Egoyan.
After our screening of the trans-themed Canadian film Laurence Anyways (2012), and of BDSM cult classic Secretary, TFS will be showing another quirky romantic comedy this February, with our special screening of French film Amélie (2001) at Market Hall on Feb. 17, followed by Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial film The Dreamers (2003) on Feb. 24 at Artspace (378 Aylmer Street North).
TFS hopes you will come to as many screenings as possible and stay for a casual discussion afterward. Please note that Secretary has a running time of 111 minutes and is rated R (definitely not suitable for children!). As always, admission is free and open to all community members.