Secretary is a twisted romantic fable that should only be watched with someone you love – or, at least, someone with whom you feel very comfortable. It’s a story of two people who discover that they’re soul mates, but they do so by a route that most viewers won’t recognize and some may find uncomfortable to watch. The film’s unique approach provides an intense depiction of how intimacy develops that has rarely been matched (and probably wouldn’t get its “R” rating from today’s MPAA).
Film Length: 111 min.
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Subtitles: English; English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25 GB
Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 20, 2002
Blu-ray Release Date: Aug. 29, 2010 (Best Buy exclusive); Oct. 5, 2010 (generally)
We open on Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her first leading role). Poised, elegantly coifed and flawlessly attired, Lee is performing secretarial duties in a tastefully furnished office. The only oddity is that her wrists are attached to an iron bar extending from a collar around her neck. Even while wearing this massive bondage appliance, Lee moves gracefully from one task to another, until she disappears into her boss’s office.
Six months earlier, we watch a frumpy and much less confident Lee as she’s released from a psychiatric hospital on the day of her sister’s wedding. Though welcomed home by her over-protective mother (Lesley Ann Warren) and alcoholic father (Stephen McHattie), Lee isn’t sure she can cope with the outside world. Bad old habits beckon. Lee is what is known as a “cutter”.
In an effort to resume a normal life, Lee attends secretarial school. Her mother drives her to a job interview at the law office of E. Edward Grey, which has a help wanted sign for “Secretary” that illuminates like a motel sign for “Vacancy”. When Lee enters the reception area, it’s a shambles. The current secretary is leaving in tears.
Mr. Grey (James Spader, still lean then) is an odd character. Withdrawn, lizard-eyed, his speech alternating between halting and rapid fire, he does his best to discourage Lee from taking the job, telling her that the work is “boring”. When she isn’t dissuaded, he hires her on the spot.
The remainder of Secretary consists of Lee and Edward finding their way to each other. It isn’t a direct path, even though they work in the same office and are mutually fascinated from the outset. For one thing, there are obstacles. Some are brief and comical, like Edward’s domineering and soon-to-be former wife (Jessica Tuck). Others are more serious, such as Lee’s childhood friend, Peter (Jeremy Davies), who wants to be more than that. Peter is the “safe” choice, who likes Lee just as she is.
But the biggest barrier separating Lee and Edward is their own natures. Both are troubled souls who are convinced that they don’t “fit” and who have given up on the possibility of being close to anyone (if indeed they ever considered it). The discovery of someone with whom intimacy may be possible both thrills and terrifies them both to such a degree that, in the film’s third act, one of them runs as far as possible in the other direction. Only an extreme act of desperation serves to bring about a happy ending. (And no, that isn’t a spoiler. It isn’t a conventional happy ending, if you look closely.)
Secretary is notable for the frankness with which it depicts Lee’s and Edward’s bizarre courtship. If extended scenes of spanking, bondage and masturbation offend you, this is not a film you’re likely to enjoy. But those looking for a prurient thrill may also be disappointed, because Secretary isn’t about flailing limbs and carnal surfaces. Actors of Gyllenhaal’s and Spader’s caliber don’t do porn, and every sexual encounter in Secretary is freighted with raw emotion that carries beyond the scene and echoes through the rest of the film. Lee and Edward are people with souls as well as bodies. They yearn, they struggle, and they suffer. Ultimately they love.
The transfer on Lionsgate’s Blu-ray is generally acceptable, though not entirely free from problems. Color and detail are both strong, and these are particularly important for the distinctive decor of Edward’s office, which resembles no law office I have ever seen but is intended to establish a particular mood and contrast with the rest of the film’s world. (Director Steven Shainberg discusses this aspect of the design in the extras.) Black levels are acceptable, and there is obvious film grain, with no indication of excess DNR or other inappropriate digital manipulation.
However, either because of the production date or the low budget, Secretary was apparently not processed through a digital intermediate, and there are clear signs of analog origination that advanced digital processing would have erased. Minor print damage is observable, but it’s generally confined to the beginning of the film; indeed, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it, if I hadn’t become so accustomed to Blu-rays derived from DIs. Perhaps more noteworthy is a slight but recurrent “gate weave”, or slight sideways motion in the image. This is mostly visible in the lower portion of the frame and usually results from instability of the physical film medium as it passes through the optical scanner. I haven’t seen this on a Blu-ray for a while, which is why it’s worth noting, though it’s minor and in my opinion doesn’t detract from the viewing experience. Let me repeat: IMO, this does not detract from the viewing experience. If someone quotes me, please quote me in full.
As is often the case with Lionsgate, there seems to be no reason for a 7.1 track, but there it is, in DTS lossless. As director Shainberg makes clear in his commentary, the film’s soundtrack was carefully mixed and the effects deliberately chosen, but they are not spread around the room in the style of an action film. They stick closely to the screen, along with the dialogue, which is clear and as natural-sounding as Secretary’s often outlandish exchanges can possibly be. The apt soundtrack selections and the playful original score by Angelo Badalamenti are well represented.
Commentary with Director Steven Shainberg and Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson. Shainberg does most of the talking, but Wilson chimes in with interesting observations on translating the original short story (by Mary Gaitskill) to the screen. Although the commentary sticks closely to the action on screen, Shainberg provides a wealth of detail about his visual strategies, the substantial contributions of Gyllenhaal and Spader and the inevitable compromises imposed by the low budget. Of particular interest is the extensive material that Shainberg describes trimming during the editing process, as he discovered what was and wasn’t needed to tell the story. It is unfortunate that none of this deleted material has been presented. (It wasn’t included on the 2003 DVD or subsequent reissue.)
Behind the Secretary (SD; 4:3) (7:09). A better-than-average promotional short including interviews with Gyllenhaal, Spader and Shainberg. One of the sources of inspiration that Shainberg mentions here, but not in the commentary, is Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), which featured an up-and-coming Daniel Day-Lewis. He also recounts how many potential producers to whom he pitched the film would say to him near the end: “And then Lee gets over this problem, right?” When Shainberg would answer, “But it’s not a problem!”, that usually ended the meeting.
Photo Gallery (16:9). About a dozen stills from the film.
Trailers. There are no film trailers. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Lionsgate on Blu-ray and an “anthology” trailer for films by the cast of The Expendables. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are also separately available from the features menu.
Secretary is the kind of film that will never be more than a cult classic, but a classic it is. It has two exceptional lead performances, and its exploration of romantic love is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. That’s not because the love being portrayed is aberrant. The aberration is how boldly it’s portrayed.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub
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