Lee Holloway likes dull work.
“I want to be bored,” she insists, instantly intriguing prospective boss Mr. E. Edward Grey on the interview for the first job of her life. The mysteriously docile creature activates his fantasies of a kind of woman who would jump into a dumpster for him, whom he could care for and dominate. But more on that later. Based on a short story from Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior collection, Steven Shainberg’s high concept tale of office romance seems to exist liminally between genres in the American tradition of David Lynch and the Coen brothers. The film investigates the erotic in mundane, unexpected objects such as the typewriter, red pen and yes, typographical errors – it’s La Pianiste with slapstick! Indeed, the comedic forces behind this sincerely kinky film is what marks the difference between provocation and sensationalism.
Assuming the titular position is a youthful Maggie Gyllenhaal, who manages to rise above the stunted social intelligence of the character to give a spirited performance. Recently released from a mental institution after slitting her wrist with a kitchen knife (accidentally on purpose), Lee returns to the tedium of her home in suburbia welcomed by her overzealous mother, alcoholic father and complacent newlywed sister who lives in the pool house. To feel something in a life that is otherwise numb, Lee quickly retrieves her old jewelry box of horrors from under the mattress; digging the foot of a plaster ballerina into her thigh, the ritual is at once medieval, teenage and fetishistic.
But Shainberg is not interested in erotic rituals on the basis of exposure – nudity is minimal in good taste. In early scenes, a milky bathtub and backyard pool hide Lee's scarred body for dramatic purposes but also emphasize her childish sexuality. Enabling her with hot chocolate and the like is Mr. Grey, portrayed by James Spader. The actor's presence almost surely sets up the expectation of eccentricity. This is confirmed as much in the introduction: the strange and ascetic arrangement of darts and red pens on his desk is juxtaposed with the ridiculous, elaborate orchid garden in the middle of his office. Here one finds an overt metaphor for Lee and Mr. Grey, both fragile and in need of attendance. (In another metaphorical aside, Mr. Grey can be seen setting mouse traps in the office only to free the captured mice.)
Though released in 2002, the film's retro props and kitsch decor diligently mystifies its tone and time period. Certainly the film's preference for the 60s pop art aesthetic and 70s wall treatments gives it a humorously insular look. Using color, Shainberg also distinguishes the two worlds Lee comes to inhabit. Her home is decidedly girly, from the pink bicycle lock on the cabinet of knives to the glittery door sign to her room, and Lee's hue is decidedly purple, which as a liminal color carries the right odd and juvenile connotations. It is also the color of a bruise, a motif for Lee's interiority and foreshadowing of her physical relationship with Mr. Grey. When she's at the office, however, she enters a more comforting, natural world. In this re-imagined garden of Eden she is discovering her femaleness as if she were the first woman and Mr. Grey the first man. The film's imagery of water, an agent of cleansing, also conveys Lee's emergence out of that stifled domesticity into a more self-possessed personhood.
The pivotal moment in which Secretary admittedly loses its innocence arrives fifty minutes into the film. Mr. Grey, having had enough of Lee's typos (no spellcheck on a typewriter after all), takes matters into his own hands. In some ways, the initiation into spanking is the first love scene of the film. Lee experiences a moment of tactile intimacy with Mr. Grey and feels paradoxically liberated. Soon she revels in submission and in having every last detail of her life controlled by him. “Just a scoop of potatoes, four peas, and all the ice cream you want,” the latter dictates over the phone at dinner time. The declaration "I'm your secretary" even becomes most celebratory in her fantasies. Lee actually endeavors to be spanked, and when she mails Mr. Grey a dead worm in provocation, it is so thrilling and aggressive an action that Mr. Grey would have to retaliate.
Since the film takes Lee's perspective, to some extent Mr. Grey is morally illegible. By all accounts, E. Edward Grey is not sure how to be nice. Peeks into his solitary existence outside the office demonstrate how he treats his life with absolute efficiency. Resting his head on own his shoulder in one scene, he invokes sympathy for the lonely devil. Nevertheless, his wish to be closer to Lee and compulsive self-discipline eventually forces a disassociation with himself and in an act of monumental denial, he cruelly reenacts the scene of the first interview to fire Lee.
The film somewhat loses its footing after Lee's dismissal. She meets other sadists and explores the caricatured world of suburban sadomasochism only to discover that it's not the lifestyle but Mr. Grey she really covets – not that the film gives any other potential suitors a chance. Subsequently this candied implication of true love meanders into a runaway-bride parody. Rejecting the normal romantic option in her old classmate, Jeremy, a largely thankless foil for Mr. Grey, Lee returns to the office for one last test. At this point, Shainberg involves the zany inhabitants of their small town in the relationship, as they come in one by one to talk Lee out of her unmoving stance at Mr. Grey's desk. If the viewer feels marooned by this turn of events perhaps it is because Shainberg chose to dignify Lee and Mr. Grey by caricaturing everyone else in the film. They're there as comic relief and to maintain communication between the two, as it is her public declaration of love in the newspapers that convinces him of her determination. Finally, he revives her and carries her to his orchid lair (and really, there isn't a better way to put it), where he attends to her exposed figure with tender, religious devotion. The odd couple ostensibly lives happily ever after and in the last confrontation of the film, Lee looks into the lens to address the viewer as a self-realized woman.