Every working relationship between a boss and his underling is bound to have some elements of sadomasochism. It only makes sense to make a film like Secretary, which not only explores this idea, but also the relationship between two lost souls in their wayward travel through life. The tormented characters of Secretary seem like helium balloons floating aimlessly, disconnected and alone. Add “misunderstood” and “frustrated” to this list and you have the main character, Lee.
A painfully shy and awkward individual who likes to cut herself with a cherished collection of razors and knives, Lee is everything her sister is not. The film begins at her sister’s wedding, where Lee has arrived fresh from her stay at an institution. Aside from being a little nervous about returning to the outside, her unease is doubled when she learns her father has taken up the practice of drinking, something that obviously is a problem. Tensions mount while watching her newly-wed sister and the overall dysfunction of her home life and she quickly returns to her room and her box of sharp objects.
Thinking that a job might give her some purpose, she becomes a secretary for the world’s most disagreeable oddball, Edward, played with creepy perfection by James Spader. This is the Spader of Sex, Lies and Videotape and Crash. The strange, slightly twisted Spader fully ready to delve deep into the world of bizarre sexuality. Here he is every bit the sadist to Lee’s masochist. He refuses to allow computers in his office, insisting that every letter be typed on a manual typewriter. He has a collection of red markers reserved for circling mistakes and he treats his elaborate office plants with the kind of fastidious care that only can be found in an obsessive mind. Everything about him is collected and neat in such a way that we sense the eruption that might happen at any moment. Obviously, he is not easy to work for. His office has a secretary wanted sign that permanently stays on the outside, just like a vacancy sign on a hotel. As Lee enters the office to apply for the position, the last secretary is leaving in tears. One can fear what might happen to Lee under the authority of such a tyrant.
The further Edward abuses her, the more Lee tries to please him, never once doing anything that completely satisfies him. She is, by all accounts, a fantastic typist, but she still makes mistakes, minor ones that he holds up as badges of her failure. Humiliated, she shrinks back to her desk ready to try again. Soon the abuse takes on a more tangible form, as he starts to physically correct her. Once this occurs, Lee realizes she has found someone, someone she can understand. Someone she needs. Someone she can fully submit to. Someone she can love.
The film twists slowly into a warped romance that is nothing short of beautiful. For all its so called perversities, Secretary is a positive and life-affirming film, far more than the bland claptrap romances normally churned out of Hollywood. None of them take as many chances or dare to explore such taboos. None of them seem as real. Secretary is full of moments that are outrageous and shocking, yet they are moments that, for all their incredibility, are always believable. It is a movie that might disturb or (if you are one of those people who can only combat discomfort with laughter) amuse you, but look past your hang ups and you might be delighted. You might find yourself getting in touch with your inner masochist and you might find yourself caring for these two sad people who connect so perfectly. Bend over and submit to Secretary.