Secretary (2002)–Review

Chris Said: August 13, 2004 at 6:04 am

I just saw watched *The Secretary*. Quite provocative. I don’t know that I would recommend it, but it stayed with me; I never knew where it was going, or what kind of story it was going to be (if that makes any sense). Maggie Gyllenhaal took some risks making this one.

Anyone else out there see this one? Really crazy. I don’t want to say more, just about anything would spoil it.

Reid Said: August 13, 2004 at 9:41 am


I saw The Secretary. I actually watched it twice. Here are my comments that I posted at the There was a lively discussion and strong disagreement about this movie. Here are my comments:

“OK, I saw this over the weekend (twice).

First of all, I just want to say that the trailer was one of the most misleading trailers that I can remember. The trailer, imo, gave me the impression of a comedy. Then again, maybe this was a comedy, but it certainly didn’t work as a comedy for me. There might have been one or two funny moments, but I didn’t see it as a comedy.

Secondly, I want to say that I thought Maggie Gyllenhaal did a really good job. (I think she could have got nominated for an Academy Award.
I can’t recall the different female lead nominees, but I’m betting she was better than some of them.) I liked the scene where Mr. Gray (played by James Spader)confronts Lee (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal). Gyllenhall’s face shows her coming to an understanding when Mr. Gray tells her why she scars herself is wonderful.

Anyway, her good performance is precisely why I had a hard time enjoying this film. She really made me feel for her. I thought she was a very troubled person with serious psychological problems, and(as others have mentioned, I guess) I felt like the filmmaker swept(or should I say, “spanked”) away those problems in a way that I just couldn’t buy. I’m not into S&M, so I can’t really relate to how that experience could affect someone, but I have a hard time believing
that an S&M relationship could basically “cure” her, of what seemed to be, severe problems. What Gray did to her–she being in the kind of
state that she was in–was disturbing as well. I thought she was vulnerable and disturbed; someone really desperate for love. And then she meets someone like Gray. I felt that Gray “going for” Lee was creepy and wrong–or at least would have been, but the director didn’t portray it that way.

I could not get beyond this fact, and so I was pretty irritated by the end of the film.

However, when I watched it a second time, I tried to look more at theh Gray character and the relationship between Gray and Lee. OK, I could see how the filmmaker tried to make this film about their relationship and about Lee helping Gray. And if the filmmaker didn’t portray Lee as a
person with these severe problems, I might have gotten into the film. For example, if Lee was a shy person who never fit in, but didn’t have these major problems, I think I could have enjoyed the film more.

Having said all this, I thought there was a good idea in this
filmmaker, and I appreciated the intelligence in the film….well,
except for that one point.

Chris Said: August 13, 2004 at 10:06 am

I agree with your problems w/ the film, or at least the plotting and characterization. Self-wounding is I suppose a problem, though it might not always be the same as suicidality, and I think that is what the movie may have been trying to portray.

And if I shifted into the mind of the Spader character (who also did a really good job), he was a sympathetic character: compulsive, guilt-ridden, unable to connect. Even though he was so distasteful, he experiences a more remarkable redemption in some ways that does Lee: his tender caring touch of her at the end, bathing her, etc., almost like his is learning to do these things for himself.

The movie just refused to give into all the cliches it was begging for (other than the acoustic guitar playing while she ran across the park in her wedding dress — which was a little like the Graduate and so that was cool and besides it was about time something opened up in her experience). And, SHE ended up somewhat in control eventually. It was definitely quite a movie: it played with all the conventional notions of victimhood in movies too.

Hey, it sounds like we like the same movie to about the same degree.

Mitchell Said: August 13, 2004 at 10:28 am

I liked Secretary for all the reasons Reid and Chris mentioned (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal’s terrific acting), but didn’t have the same problems with it. I found it unsatisfying in the way I find most dark comedies unsatisfying–I suspect it’s because I never get what they’re trying to do.

Cutters do what they do mainly for two reasons (if I remember my reading), I think: they either use physical pain as a secret expression of their emotional pain (this is why some of them most enjoy seeing the blood–it’s like a painting of what’s going on inside) or they use it so they can feel anything at all because they’re sorta numb inside. So it makes total, total sense to me that she would be drawn to this relationship. Someone understands her need to feel something, and someone is willing to provide that.

I understand sadism much, much, much less. In fact, not at all. But if I can assume that the sincere desire to hurt someone can be compared to the sincere desire to be hurt, this relationship is sweet, in an odd, twisted way–perhaps it can be compared to the Nicholas Cage & Elisabeth Shue relationship in Leaving Las Vegas: a relationship in which two people love each other in a way that’s perfect for them but slightly incomprehensible to the rest of us.

In any case, worth seeing but maybe not worth seeing more than once. I love, love, love Maggie, though.

Reid Said: August 13, 2004 at 10:31 am


Wait, I think you’re getting the wrong impression from my reaction to the film. I appreciated elements of it, but that one big hang-up I had was a really BIG hang-up.

Gray is transformed, and he’s tender to her at the end. Yes, that was sweet. But the premise that Lee can be redeemed by S&M overshadows that scene. It also overshadows the control that she does seem to achieve at the end. The “victories” the characters achieve seem false and unrealistic.

As I mentioned in some part of the Utne discussion, if Lee did not seem to be in so much pain–if she were just a social outcast, for example–then I don’t think I would have had as a big a problem with S&M being the source of her redemption.

Reid Said: August 13, 2004 at 11:55 am |


There is a sweetness to the relationship, and it’s not the S&M, per se, that makes the relationship unbelieveable and unenjoyable to watch for me. Rather, it’s the fact that Lee has so many problems and pain in her life, and getting ed and having a relationship with Gray can remedy that seems pat and dismissive of some serious problems. Lee really seems to have a bad family life, and Gyllenhaal gives a convincing portrayal of the misery and pain that she’s in. I guess, S&M–particularly as a means to healing and redemption–is really beyond my understanding.

But even if I can’t totally understand the desire for an S&M relationship, I do not believe the kind of problems that Lee has can be overcome as easily as the film made it appear.

WRT, Leaving Las Vegas, I think I “got” the relationship between Cage’s and Shue’s character. Cage was going down in flames no matter what, and Shue’s character was willing to be with him–accept him and this fate–along this descent. Why would Shue’s character do this?

I think there are several factors. For one thing, Cage was a character more pitiful than she. In the early part of the film, Shue is almost (if not) d by a bunch of frat boys. This is a traumatic experience, and you can sense that Shue’s charcter is low and not feeling good about herself. Then she meets Cage’s character.

Because he’s just as pitiful and needy, if not moreso, than she is, she can believe that she can actually do do something good, maybe even something beautiful, to this person. Cage provides Shue with an opportunity to do something good for someone else. It’s like she’s a loving nurse, a Mother Theresa figure to wait until Cage dies.

It’s tragic, but beautiful at the same time. That’s how I felt when I first saw it, but I wonder if I would still feel that way today.

Chris Said: August 13, 2004 at 6:50 pm


I don’t know if S&M is really the (at least only) redemptive thing. She learns to type; she wants to be a secretary; she has the courage to get a job; she learns to enjoy doing good work; she has a boyfriend and some very good moments with him. She throws away her ‘kit’ that she uses to hurt herself, and doesn’t fall back into it, instead optting to hold out for a ’solution’ that involves love and human contact. Yes, the redemptive conclusion is perhaps unrealistic, but the movie takes place over at least 6 months’ time, and it is only a small redemption in a way, only a beginning.

Don’t get me wrong; I have a big time accepting S&M as healthy behavior, but it brings up the issue of who/what behaviors are considered the most socially unacceptable, and what people experience at those extremes. Like a movie about a sex offender trying to get well — you don’t see that much, but the theme & story I could find really compelling.

What about the redemptive them in *Jesus’ Son*. That one seems highly ‘realistic’ or whatever. He finds slow recovery through therapy — incremental little steps. I loved that film, but I can’t remember if you liked it or not.

Reid Said: August 13, 2004 at 7:08 pm


But doesn’t Gray say you’ll never need that “kit” again, implying that the S&M acts will replace the kit? In any event, I don’t have a big hang-up over the S&M acts by themselves, just that her problems seemed to solved in a pat way. Well, the implications that a S&M relationship took care of her troubles is also troubling.

I would find a sex offender trying to recover very compelling–but not if he/she got healed by S&M!

I really liked the beginning of Jesus’ Son. I liked the premise and the way the filmmaker told the story, but it kind of let me down at the end.

Chris Said: August 14, 2004 at 3:29 am

I think you could maintain that it was more love than S & M that was redeeming — she tried finding S&M experiences elsewhere. Of course, why she would actually find herself *loving* the guy, but who knows. And by getting rid of the kit, she wasn’t just making an ‘equal’ trade — it was a tremendously courageous thing to do, wasn’t it? Trading in the controlled lonely suffering of her family life for the hope for intimacy and understanding w/ another person?

I’m stretching the film a bit here a realize, and these things are occuring to me as I write.

Reid Said: August 14, 2004 at 8:36 am

I thought the film was interesting and original, and I wanted to be happy about their relationship in the end, but I couldn’t. Btw, isn’t the movie based on a book? It might be interesting to see what the book is like.

Chris Said: August 14, 2004 at 6:23 pm

Yes, it’s a short story I believe. It is by a woman who’s name I’ve forgotten.

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