Sadomasochism doesn’t get much more life-affirming than it does in Secretary (Lions Gate), in which a disturbed young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a self-mutilator, finds happiness in a master/slave relationship with her employer (James Spader). The movie is a romantic fairy tale of deliverance, a Pretty Woman (1990) for the bondage set. The Prince Charming of this story is more princely than charming, but charm is the opposite of what this woman, Lee Holloway, turns out to need. She has grown up with a charming father (Stephen McHattie) who’s a drunk and a poor counterweight to her overprotective mother (Lesley Ann Warren); and she has a scruffy, mama’s-boy suitor (Jeremy Davies) who moonily proclaims her his “soul mate” but doesn’t begin to engage her in bed. She needs to be taken royally in hand.
This riotously un-PC black comedy, directed by Steven Shainberg from a script by the playwright Erin Cressida Wilson, is based on a story by Mary Gaitskill in her collection Bad Behavior. The tone is different from Gaitskill’s, whose humor is dry and teasingly scabrous; her “Secretary” is a more subtle provocation. Having been spanked and sexually humiliated by her employer, the narrator feels estranged from her own body. And she likes that estrangement: It fires her sexual fantasies. The moviemakers have not only sweetened the protagonist’s climactic realization, they’ve put whipped cream and a cherry on top. I don’t mean that to sound too patronizing. Sweet in this context is rather bracing: This isn’t exactly the era in which to make the case for sexual harassment. Secretary has a demented, then-I’ll-go-to-hell kind of allure.
Much of its magnetism comes from Gyllenhaal, with her cherub face and shocked-open blue eyes; she has the edgy hyper-awareness of the damaged. The movie doesn’t have the arch detachment of The Good Girl (2002). Steve Fierberg’s camera is right there with Lee: It quivers in synch. When Lee senses events moving beyond her control, she takes one of sundry sharp implements out of a special box and cuts her arms and legs. Fresh out of a hospital, she answers an ad for a secretary to the attorney E. Edward Grey (Spader), whose office is like a Victorian aesthete’s pleasure palace. There’s a suggestion of the legendary English gentleman’s den of iniquity, the Hellfire Club, while Angelo Badalamenti’s marvelous score transports you to a North African fantasy harem and parodies that fantasy, too. Grey tells Lee that the job will be dull, and she says, “I like dull.” She desperately needs a vacation from herself, and this is the place to do it. It’s like the manse in Jane Eyre, with a Rochester out of De Sade.
The real secret of Secretary’s sweetness is that its sadist is a bigger basket case than its masochist. Grey is catatonic over the recent loss of his blond, domineering wife (Jessica Tuck); he stares at her picture and his face is instantly stippled with sweat. As an actor, Spader doesn’t have anything like Gyllenhaal’s variety or imagination, but he’s a specialist in hysterical self-encasement, and he has the perfect plaintive drone. When Grey notices the bandaged cuts on Lee’s legs, he becomes interested: On some unconscious level he senses that their needs might be complementary. He humiliates her subtly, then not so subtly. He berates her for typographical errors. But he also issues more “positive” commands: He tells her to walk home instead of ride with her smothering mother. He orders her not to cut herself again, and she tosses her box of instruments off a bridge. Then he asks her into his office to review a letter she has mistyped and tells her to read it while bending over his desk.
The big spanking number is played at a creepy-crawly pace, the better to let you savor Gyllenhaal’s face as she passes through various phases of shock, fear, and then something else—something wondrous. The drama is in the way she moves from dazed and skittery into a kind of rhapsody, into elation at being finally freed from her anger toward herself. The vessel for someone else’s anger now, she’s ecstatic, and her buoyancy carries the second half of the movie, when her “master” is ridden with guilt and sends her packing. Most love stories are bland and generalized. This one takes you deep inside the dance.
How does one praise Secretary without seeming to endorse sexual harassment and mental and physical cruelty? Very gingerly. It will be strange if my two favorite movies of the year are this and Frederick Wiseman’s 196-minute documentary Domestic Violence, which largely takes place in a shelter for battered spouses and their children. Wiseman shows us countless women who became dependent on their abusers to fill some inner vacuum, who only broke free when their lives (or the lives of their children) were threatened. Secretary doesn’t get into that kind of ugliness, or even the uglier side of sadomasochism: Grey is way on the vanilla end of the kinky spectrum, and there’s never any sense that the abuse could escalate and become a real danger. (He’s obsessed with catching mice, but he uses nonlethal traps and lets them go—almost tenderly—outside the office. That’s a metaphor.)
Some will find Secretary a retrograde, misogynistic fantasy nonetheless—perhaps all the worse for candy-coating its games of power and control. But I find it a healthy corrective to the self-help language of “empowerment,” which hasn’t been much help to Lee Holloway. It’s not a counterweight to such vital studies of patriarchal abuse as Lynn S. Chancer’s Sadomasochism in Everyday Life: The Dynamics of Power and Powerlessness; it’s a “Yes, BUT.” Even Susan Faludi has been careful to say that different kinds of forces come into play in the bedroom, that sexual role-playing can fulfill urgent psychological needs that don’t necessarily reinforce the backlash against feminism. And these themes simply aren’t explored in American movies and TV shows. Last year, Buffy the Vampire Slayer toyed entertainingly with an S&M relationship, but Buffy’s stakings of male vampires remained graphic while her supposed sexual masochism was handled coyly and off-screen: her hidden shame. I like that Secretary wears it proudly. Choosing to be enslaved can be delightfully freeing.
Over the last two decades, Goldie Hawn has been borderline unwatchable: those laquered features, those overinflated lips, that twittery voice that belongs with someone half her age. I wasn’t expecting the performance of her life in The Banger Sisters (Fox Searchlight), a too-pat but very funny comedy about a pair of ex-groupies who reunite after 20 years. Suddenly, all the things that made Hawn such an embarrassment make her character, Suzette, utterly heartbreaking. Hawn uses her voice differently this time: It’s rough, with a big, dusty laugh. Squeezed into her jeans and skintight blouses, Suzette has become a brash, hopeful parody of a good-time girl. She still has the groupie moves, but when she’s rejected she gets mean, and her blond ditziness looks increasingly like a self-protective chaos. What a wonderful thing to see: an actress reborn.
It’s too bad that the movie, written and directed by Bob Dolman, has to turn Suzette into the Life Force: She not only liberates her old “sister” Vinnie (Susan Sarandon) from a life of beige, upper-class repression but heals Vinnie’s daughters (Erika Christensen and Eva Amurri) and an eccentric, suicidal screenwriter (Geoffrey Rush, with a forced American accent that kills the performance). I wish Dolman had let someone else direct: The feel needs to be scruffier, like an old Jonathan Demme movie, instead of boringly on-the-nose. But I shouldn’t complain too much: I laughed all the way through The BangerSisters. Sarandon has a thankless part, and she doesn’t play repression very interestingly: She can’t find it in herself to be a woman who enjoys projecting supreme competence. But she’s fun to watch. And she has one sublime, genius moment, at the family dinner table, when the talk turns to Jim Morrison, and her eyes signal she’s leaving her new persona and time-traveling back to the ‘60s. You can almost see Jimbo’s phallus in those huge, shining peepers, and you know for a moment she’s in heaven.