Heroes of the Zeroes: Secretary
Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.
“Secretary” recalibrated the capabilities of meaningful romantic comedy — a cliche-free “Pygmalion” variation that was stealthily tender, witty but never broad and scintillatingly erotic to the point of palpitations.
Steven Shainberg’s 2002 film followed a workplace relationship founded on dominant-submissive bondage principles, but never felt disturbing or perverse. Erin Cressida Wilson’s script (based on Mary Gaitskill’s short story) was too inventive to be so reductive — aware that respectful romance could still flourish in this world.
Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is a young woman with hazardous habits — a compulsive cutter with low self-esteem released from psychiatric care before she’s really ready. After Lee becomes a secretary to obsessive-compulsive lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader), his oddly heartfelt harassment escalates into titillation and inspiration.
Even for performers of such historically chancy instincts, Gyllenhaal and Spader turn in career-best work.
Gyllenhaal shows Lee growing into her Olive Oyl body — a gangly posture she’ll soon straighten with confidence as va-va-voom as her sexuality. Watch her panic as Edward, both creepy boss and attentive suitor, prompts self-esteem by praising things Lee’s never noticed about herself. Then witness her delight as Edward’s paddling substitutes her self-inflicted wounds with pleasurable, harmless pain.
Beneath Spader’s passivity hides the fact that love is far from a safe word for him — a foreign feeling that’s scrambled his brain and closed him off to any contact not on his terms.
Struggling to understand each other’s stained, cracked souls, these two learn intimacy can be dangerous and love tricky even without the kink.