Secretary

Dir: Stephen Shainberg
2002
A fabulous performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal
and a typically weird one by James Spader, in this tale of a socially backward girl who comes into her own under the weird dominating presence of the lawyer, Edward Grey, she works for. The critical consensus of the film is that the ending falls apart, or suggests that much was cut to keep the third act from leaving its near-literal hothouse atmosphere. I felt this way too, that Lee (Gyllenhaal) finds her freedom through becoming a submissive, and so the end, where the two consummate their love in a very straight, hetero way (naked rumpy-pumpy) feels like it’s against everything that’s come first. Surely, the desired outcome for Lee would be more of the submissive game.
A few days later, I came up with an alternative to just dismissing the ending. Perhaps what we’re seeing is Edward’s assertion of dominance over the narrative. How can Lee, a submissive, wind up being the hero? Wouldn’t that make her dominant? So, think about the orchids, Edward’s prised possession. They are cloistered, doted on, but stuck in an artificial “natural” environment.” We also see Edward plant a photo of Lee in the garden. What if the lawyer’s office is the nursery, and marriage/life in a suburban house is the end location/result? Lee becomes a flower that is transplanted into Edward’s life. When they finally make love, it is on a grass bed. A following shot shows Lee strapped to a tree during sex (the last image of bondage we see). Is the ultimate bondage domestic servitude? Is the final shot of Lee, as she looks into the camera with all sorts of emotion washing over her face, damning? A cry for help? Acceptance? She has spoken to us thorughout, but now Lee just looks. Is the film a very subtle and/or vague version of “The Collector”? How complicit is Lee in her fate? How should we feel about this?
Looking at the film this way, it may not be so hard to dismiss.

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