Unreal Movie Vault: Secretary (2002)


It’s been awhile since I’ve done a “Movie Vault” review, or in plainspeak, reviewed a movie that has been released for quite some time.  I recently watched Secretary, a movie from 2002 of which I had never heard.  How did I miss this film?  While not the greatest movie – and the low budget shows throughout viewing – it’s got a very good cast that serve up great performances.  More importantly, though, it deals with a topic that is so taboo that I would have imagined it nearly impossible to make a watchable movie about that topic.  Director Steven Shainberg succeeded in that endeavor.  So, what just is Secretary about?  Keep reading the full review to find out.


Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Lee Holloway, a young woman recently released from a mental hospital.  When we first see Lee, she’s got her neck and wrists locked into a yoke-like contraption, nonchalantly performing secretarial duties.  We’re given no explanation for this bizarre scenario, and instead we flash back to six months earlier.  As an aside, I always though Gyllenhaal was a decent actress (she was leaps and bounds better than Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, although that may not sound like much praise), but after watching this movie, I think she’s great.

It turns out that Lee privately cuts herself with razors or other sharp objects.  It’s not really a form of punishment, but of release.  And she gets off on it.  By that, I don’t mean that she enjoys it a lot.  I mean that it turns her on something fierce.  Gyllenhaal conveys both ecstasy and pain during these scenes, making them seem frightening and real.  After her release from the mental hospital, Lee seeks employment as a secretary.  As an incredibly efficient typist, she’s more than qualified for that type of job. However, being a secretary is somewhat of a dream job for Lee, as – in addition to inflicting harm on herself – she gets off on taking orders and being treated like dirt.  She’s a masochist to the very core.


Lee is eventually hired by E. Edward Grey, an old-fashioned and demanding attorney played by James Spader.  Grey is incredibly creepy, and you can tell immediately that he’s a sexual deviant.  Needless to say, Spader is perfect for this role.  He treats Lee like crap, and to his surprise and satisfaction, she embraces his demeaning attitude toward her.  Their dynamic escalates, and the spanking (oh yes, lots of spanking) and tedious tasks Grey assigns Lee only grow to strengthen their feelings for one another.  In fact – and I believe this to be an important aspect of the film – Grey helps Lee; her love of his sadistic ways eventually help her to overcome her habit of cutting herself.  And it’s in this odd, alien relationship that the audience can see beauty: Lee likes to be punished, Grey likes to punish, and because of this, they’re happy with one another and both seek self-improvement.


The tone of the film is somewhat difficult to pin down, but if anything, it’s a black comedy.  I think that’s part of the reason this film succeeds; Shainberg must have known that in order to show a functioning sadist-masochist relationship, one must see the humorous side of it.  Otherwise, the film would have taken itself too seriously and its subject matter would come across as completely ludicrous and unbelievable instead of grounded and organic.  In any event, both Spader and Gyllenhaal turn in remarkable performances in Secretary.  It’s not the greatest film by any means, but it’s unique and memorable, something that I unfortunately cannot say about many movies these days.  It’s also an enjoyable movie about a loving BDSM relationship, a feat a wouldn’t have thought possible before watching this movie.  If you want to see something different, give Secretary a shot.

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  1. I liked the movie.
    I borrowed the DVD two years ago or so from a friend and also watched the interviews with the director, where he tells that it was quite difficult to produce the movie due to it’s content.

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