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Lee Holloway has recently left a mental institute and has been released into the care of her over-bearing mother and alcoholic father. Determined to get her life together, she gets a job as a secretary for an attorney she does her best to please.
For more about Secretary and the Secretary Blu-ray release, see Secretary Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on September 4, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Patrick Bauchau, Stephen McHattie, Lesley Ann Warren
Director: Steven Shainberg
» See full cast & crew
Secretary Blu-ray Review
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, September 4, 2010
Sexual taboos in film have fallen by the wayside with such alarming rapidity over the past several decades that one would think there couldn't possibly be any left. One would be wrong, as Secretary makes so daringly clear in its opening sequence. When was the last time a film had either the courage or insanity, or perhaps both, to open with its star adorned in a bondage metal crucifix of sorts, traipsing around an office and attempting to get her secretarial duties done with her arms attached to the structure? Maggie Gyllenhaal's Lee Holloway manages to remove a letter from the carriage of her typewriter (yes, typewriter) and get coffee for her demanding boss (James Spader) in this opening sequence, surely one of the oddest few minutes to ever begin a film. And then, as Paul Harvey used to so famously intone, we get. . .the rest of the story.
In a previous life I managed a temporary service which, in an odd piece of synchronicity, actually catered to legal clients, and so I had my fill of a frankly very odd at times assortment of legal secretaries, the job for which Gyllenhaal's character Lee applies, getting hired more or less on the spot by Spader's uptight and probably obsessive compulsive attorney character, E. Edward Grey. In my personal experience, legal secretaries often consider themselves the "Cadillac" of office assistants, women (typically, anyway) who must know the ins and outs of filing complaints, depositions and other legal detritus, making sure everything meets with the Court Clerk's approval. These legal secretaries often have to deal with their bosses' Type A personalities, though I doubt (or perhaps hope) that few have had to wend their way through the sexual labyrinth that awaits Lee once she goes to work for Edward.
Once Secretary opens with that astonishing sequence described above, we segue back six months to discover a hapless and haggard Lee, who has just been released from a mental institution after one of her self mutilation adventures had gone terribly awry. Lee returns to her completely dysfunctional home, which includes an abused mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and an alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie). Lee is of course soon tempted to resume her immolating proclivities until by chance she spots a help wanted ad in the garbage. That takes her to the lair of Grey, who is a patently odd, buttoned down lawyer who has gone through so many secretaries he keeps a lit marquee outside his office advertising the position. Soon it becomes apparent that Lee's submissive masochism plays very, very well with Grey's incipient obsession-compulsion, dominance and sadism.
Is Secretary a breakthrough film for those who insist BDSM is just another lifestyle, no different really than the Cleavers or, to utilize an example mentioned by director Steven Shainberg in one of the supplements, the homosexual love depicted in My Beautiful Launderette? It may be, though my hunch is a lot of audience members are going to be significantly more squeamish at the sight of Lee getting roughed up by Edward, often to sexual gratification, than they might be even by male on male intimacy. When one steps back just a moment to think about Lee's family structure depicted in Secretary, with a boorish father beating the living daylights out of the mother, it puts Lee's "needs" in a completely different light than perhaps even Shainberg or screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson intended.
Putting aside any qualms individuals may have with this particular subject matter, the fact is Secretary does an amazingly good job walking an extremely fine line—a line that may be deemed near invisible, in fact—between comedy so dark it could right be called a black hole, and heartfelt drama which depicts a woman's sexual awakening and, yes, empowerment (as odd as that might seem in Lee's submissive world). What elevates the tone of the film is Gyllenhaal's amazingly supple performance, which manages to evoke the proper amount of sympathy while also eliciting a fair number of giggles (perhaps of embarrassment) as Lee lasciviously fantasizes about becoming Edward's prey. Spader is also exceptional here, with little character riffs like his odd "sniffing," taking in the aromas of his predatory situation.
Less effective is the subplot involving Lee's putative fiancé Peter, played by Jeremy Davies with the same annoying mumbling style brought to his Daniel Faraday role in Lost. What is it about so many modern actors that makes them think whispering their lines with an attendant amount of ridiculous "business" in terms of fidgeting and facial tics makes their characters somehow more "real"? Have you ever known someone who behaves that way? If so, my guess is you would be prone to make them the submissive end of your own sadistic fantasy.
Secretary is certainly unique, to say the least. It's going to offend an awful lot of people, and it's also going to be the cult film for a very select audience niche that wants their sexual preferences recognized as a legitimate choice. It's to the film's credit that Secretary never really camps up the subject matter, despite an often hyperbolic tone that hovers just this side of Susan Sontag territory. With assured, if often disturbing, performances by Gyllenhaal and Spader, this is a film that may make you uneasy, but which offers some thought provoking ideas on how some people approach their own quest for identity.
Secretary Blu-ray, Video Quality
I never saw Secretary in its SD-DVD incarnation, but I was frankly a little underwhelmed with this Blu-ray's AVC encoded 1080p image (in 1.78:1). Don't get me wrong, there's nothing egregiously horrible here, but there is an overall softness, with some very noticeable grain (especially in the outdoor shots) which makes this a less than pristine high definition image. Colors are generally very strong, with excellent saturation, and at times, sharpness takes an extreme uptick, as odd as that may sound. Close-ups of Spader and Gyllenhaal provide a wealth of detail and some nice tracking shots of flowers look spectacular. But midrange and far shots generally are soft, giving this Blu-ray the appearance of an upconverted DVD at times. Lovers of this film will probably have nothing to complain about. Others coming to this new may have to set their expectations just a tad lower than usual to accept the film (which was after all shot on a relatively miniscule budget) as it comes.
Secretary Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Does Secretary really require its DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless track? Frankly, I'm not even sure the soundtrack as it is warrants much of a surround track to begin with, but be that as it may, we do indeed get a 7.1 mix here, for what it's worth. This isn't a film that screams sonic immersion, though there are some very nice surround effects, including some great gurgling water noises when Lee is floating in her parents' pool and, later, when she makes her way through a monsoon-like rainstorm. Nice environmental ambient effects are subtle, but apparent, in many of the (brief) outdoor shots. For the most part, though, this is a small scale, intimate affair consisting mostly of dialogue between Lee and Edward, as well as Lee's voiceover. The DTS track is of course flawless in this regard, providing crisp and clean sound with excellent fidelity.
Secretary Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Three above average bonuses supplement the main feature. Director Shainberg and writer Wilson provide an insightful Commentary, though they both seem oddly nonplussed about their subject matter. There's also a passable featurette called Behind the Secretary (SD; 7:09), as well as an intriguing Photo Gallery.
Secretary Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
You have to give Secretary props for going where few, if any, films have gone before. It's no doubt going to make a lot of people squeamish, but the film actually takes a relatively restrained look at the world of BDSM, managing to handle the content with both a very black sense of humor as well as some disturbing dramatic elements. Gyllenhaal is superb as Lee Holloway, and Spader gives a very nuanced, if patently weird, performance as Edward. This may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a fascinating film and comes recommended.
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