Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Secretary

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SECRETARY

6/10

USA 2001 (released 2002) : Steven SHAINBERG : 104 mins

James Spader gives one of the funniest performances of recent years in Secretary both funny ha ha and well as funny peculiar. As Florida lawyer E Edward Grey, Spader comes up with a character with an excess of sensibility the like of which we haven’t witnessed on the big screen since Vincent Prices quiveringly inbred aristocrats from early 60s Roger Corman horror movies. And there is something of the horror anti-hero about Grey, whose hyper-demanding superciliousness burns out a succession of secretaries until the emotionally-unstable Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) answers his latest want-ad. It isn’t long before the professional relationship between Grey and Lee shades into a very dark kind of romance, with heavy overtones of S+M but how far will the submissive Lee go to satisfy the capricious demands of her terminally insecure new master?

In a film all about extremity, the contributions of director Shainberg and scriptwriter Mary Gaitskill (with Shainberg, massively expanding a very short short-story by Erin Cressida Wilson) only rarely approach the entertainingly no-holds barred contributions of their lead performers. Shainbergs inexperience (this is only his second feature) produces some abortive, ill-advised attempts at directorial style what this material needs is a much more cool, neutral approach. Even the production design by Amy Danger occasionally feels over-fussy (there can seldom have been so many mauve things in a single film before) and there’s a general impression of film-makers trying just that little too hard for a culty vibe: Shainberg over-uses long-time David Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamentis score.

The script, meanwhile, could have done with a rewrite or two the contributions from Jeremy Davies as Lees nice guy boyfriend could profitably have been drastically reduced, especially as Davies produces the same mannered performance that almost ruined Steven Soderberghs Solaris. More damagingly, Shainberg loses his way in the latter stretches when Lee and Greys behaviour becomes a local news story scenes so at odds with whats gone before that we (wrongly) presume they must be fantasy hallucination sequences. By this stage, however, the film has managed to establish sufficient oddball charm to tide us over the rougher patches though essentially a comedy, its one without very many laughs.

Shainberg doesn’t hold back from emphasising the characters traumas, nor from showing the destructive side to the central romance he seems to be heading into very dark territory indeed during Greys last request to Lee, and we brace ourselves for some kind of Bunuel-tinged Cronenberg nastiness. Its a considerable relief when this doesn’t actually transpire, and we realise that we do in fact want this bizarre relationship to succeed which is, really, all that we ever need ask from any movie romance.

5th June, 2003
(seen 22nd May: Cornerhouse, Manchester)

by Neil Young