Ponderance

(May 2003 - March 2007.) Tama's thoughts on the blogosphere, podcasting, popular culture, digital media and citizen journalism posted from a laptop computer somewhere in Perth's isolated, miniature, urban jungle ...

Thursday, June 05, 2003
Secretary: S&M plus Maggie Gyllenhaal Can Make You Think!

Probably the most inappropriate word to apply to contemporary film is "original". Just about every film out there seems to be doing the same old thing but bigger, brighter, louder and with more CGI. 2003's 25+ big name studio summer of sequels is evidence enough, really. However, in the midst of all this same-old-same-old there are gems to be found. And Secretary is definitely one of those painfully rare diamonds in the rough.

The film itself is complicated enough and any description is unlikely to do any justice to the complex and clever story, but, in a nutshell, I'd have to call it a hyper-generic-romantic-ultra-reflexive-black-comedy-with-S&M. Now if you've not seen the film, that description will conjure something completely inappropriate, and if you have seen it, you'll probably disagree. Indeed, I suspect the only constant about the viewing experience of Secretary is that people will need to talk about it and, most likely, will disagree.

For me, the film takes a stock standard romance plot and pushes every idea to an extreme. Lovers have to be found who are compatible: who more so than a sadist and masochist? Cinderella needs to escape a bad home environment: how better to express this trauma than Cinderella physically self-mutilating (as in the beginning of the film) due, in a larger part, to her family life? Prince Charming has to rescue Snow White from a seemingly inescapable slumber: so why not have him "save" her from a self-imposed exhaustion taken so far she's passed out? You get the idea (or possibly, the wrong idea).

The real joy of the film is it paints no easy pictures, takes no (avoidably) cliched routes and never quite fixes a reading for the audience. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Lee, the secretary in question, does an exquisite job with the character, proving every bit as talented as her brother Jake "Donnie Darko" Gyllenhaal. James Spader plays, well, a slightly more internalised version of the same character he's played since Sex, Lies and Videotape, but juxtaposes well against Gyllenhaal to build a really quite fascinating relationship. Steven Shainberg's direction of a script based on Erin Cressida Wilson's short story is spot on, as are the set design and lighting. Even when the film teeters on the edge of the chasm-which-is-cliche in the last few minutes, it is saved by a last, disconcerting, and very hard to interpret, close up on Lee which, to my mind, acts as a question mark for the audience regarding their experience of the film, and also questions their entire generic tradition of the romance narrative in film. And about time, too.

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