“Who’s to say that love needs to be soft and gentle?”

BDSM used to be a pretty taboo topic—until the godawful Fifty Shades of Grey exploited it as an artless debacle. But back in 2002, it was a pretty foreign topic in cinema, often used as a raunchy joke if it appeared at all. Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg (Rupture, Hit Me) and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, could have been either a sermonizing condemnation of the subject matter or a gratuitous exploitation of it; but the way the movie respects the relationship it portrays elevates this from the drivel that usually surrounds the topic. And with great writing and great performances from both leads, this is a fascinating portrait of how a real relationship with BDSM aspects could develop.

The movie opens with Lee Holloway, a young woman institutionalized for self-harming, being released from the institution and back into her family’s care. It’s clear that her self-harming ways are not behind her, as she still does it to alleviate stress. She gets her first job as a secretary for Mr. Grey, a young lawyer. Mr. Grey soon recognizes the signs of self-harm in Lee and sees in her a kindred spirit, and their work relationship evolves into something markedly less professional. All the while, Lee is trying to have some semblance of a normal relationship with her childhood friend and boyfriend Peter—which she finds very unfulfilling.

Why do you cut yourself, Lee? … Is it that sometimes the pain inside has to come to the surface and when you see evidence of the pain inside, you finally know you’re really here? Then, when you watch the wound heal, it’s comforting. Isn’t it?

What makes Secretary really work as a movie are all of the little details that make the relationship and character development more believable. Mr. Grey isn’t some suave sex fiend who opens Lee’s eyes to a different world—he’s a conflicted man filled with self-loathing and surrounded by broken relationships. He doesn’t want his dominant desires. And, at first, Lee doesn’t want her submissive desires. But, as is usually the case with relationships that feature BDSM, the submissive holds all the power to make the relationship work. It’s ultimately Lee’s fragile personality that moves the relationship forward and brings it from office shenanigans in the dark to true romance. And Mr. Grey is just as transformed as Lee by the end of the story. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the movie; but by the end, I was cheering for them.

This film pulls no punches in its portrayal of mental illness and chronically different sexual desires. As someone who has struggled with mental illness for some time, Lee’s self harm is so accurate that it hurts. She’s not some normal but innocent young woman in need of a sexual awakening—she’s a fragile young woman worried she’ll never have a normal life. At the same time, Mr. Grey describes himself as “shy”—probably because he realizes that whenever he shows people the parts of himself that he can’t change, they end up leaving him in a mess of tears. The former secretary walking out in tears as Lee walks in for her job interview, right past the permanently-placed “now hiring” sign, is evidence of this. He’s resigned himself to essentially be alone for life, and you can see how hard this hits him. For both characters, I think they would give anything to change these parts of themselves. That’s why it’s so triumphant, and empowering, when they find something that works for them.

Lee faces exhaustion in Secretary
This ugly moment was an amazing show of strength for Lee, who was a fairly weak person at the start of the film

That’s not to say that this movie is tame. It’s not gratuitous, but it is at times graphic, definitely earning a hard R rating. Some of the scenes are a bit shocking, even if we realize by the end that this is just how these characters are. We see both Lee and Mr. Grey struggle with their own desires and try to put them aside—Mr. Grey in particular is ashamed of himself—but they can’t deny their urges. And their urges are unhealthy until they’re reciprocated, which is the realization that drives Lee into the climax of the film.

I’ll admit, Secretary is definitely not for everyone, due mostly to the subject matter. It shows what could be considered sexual deviancy without a filter and it does so without judgment. Still, I’m very glad I saw this movie, and I would watch it again. There are a lot of movies that try to show people finding the one love of their lives, but this movie captures that isolation better than just about any other romance I’ve seen, even if the romance only comes in during the latter parts of the film. It’s a well-written and fascinating study of a misunderstood and often misrepresented portion of the public, and it earns its place on this list for that.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 1:51
Director: Steven Shainberg
Year: 2002
Genres: comedy, drama, indie, romance
Rating: R

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