Though S&M has been mainstreamed into pop culture as a joke and a cliché, Secretary treats the topic with a compassion–and a silliness–that are both extremely original. Instead of whips and chains, the twisted law office where the film occurs is stocked with red pens and corrector fluid. These and other variations ultimately make Secretary one of the stranger and funnier love stories of the season.
After leaving a mental institution, shy young Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) decides to take a typing class and look for her first job. That’s how she meets attorney E. Edward Grey (the ever-creepy James Spader), a demanding boss who keeps orchids and insists on good posture.
She takes the job, embraces the boring work, and soon begins suffering the lawyer’s wrath for minor mistakes. After finding three typing errors in a single letter, he calls her into his office and spanks her while she reads the letter aloud. Before long, their professional relationship has entirely crossed over into something that would give a human resources director hives.
Forget about issues like sexual harassment: That isn’t what Secretary is about. Populated with old-fashioned typewriters instead of computers, this surreal office is clearly not a microcosm of the modern workplace. It’s a strange corner of a fictional universe, where the chemistry between Spader and Gyllenhaal–and the subtlety of her expressions–make this movie work. While she’s being spanked, Lee’s face shows the spectrum of humiliation, vulnerability, and exhilaration that lets us know the strange relationship between these two is about much more than sex.
For Lee, domination turns out to be liberating. Before her boss ever lays a hand to her backside, he learns that Lee cuts herself sometimes to deal with emotional stress, and that she carries her instruments of self-mutilation around, like a security blanket. Edward breaks through to her by articulating exactly why she cuts herself: to feel the pain inside expressed outwardly. Then he tells her, “You’re over that now. You’ll never do it again.” She obeys.
Edward’s control over her escalates to a hilarious degree, down to the number of peas he gives her permission to eat for dinner. Even funnier is the way she feeds off this dynamic. Before long, she’s crawling down the office hallway with a typewritten letter between her teeth, beaming with excitement.
Through such tough love, Lee ultimately blossoms into a sexy, confident young woman–one who is clearly gaining the upper hand. At that point we learn that Edward is even more conflicted than she. As their relationship progresses, Lee faces her proclivities without shame, and attempts to force Edward to do so.
Though this movie could have gone horribly wrong in a number of ways, it doesn’t. Far from a commentary on male-female office relationships, Secretary is actually a love story about two very peculiar people who don’t fit into the mainstream, but do fit one another: at its heart, a very funny, very kinky fairy tale.
If we believe the legend, British TV news celebrity Tony Wilson was one of exactly 42 people at the Sex Pistols’ first live performance in Manchester in 1976. Apparently, the majority of the audience went on to start a host of influential New Wave bands, including The Buzzcocks, Joy Division and The Smiths. In turn, Wilson founded the groundbreaking record label, Factory Records and two legendary rock clubs.
24 Hour Party People chronicles the Manchester music scene from mid-’70s punk to the acid house of the early ’90s, all through Wilson’s singular point of view. Shot on digital video in a style that evokes both documentary and drug-induced hallucination, this fractured film charts Wilson’s heady rise and ultimate disaster. Not only does People mix archive footage and recordings of legendary punk performances with the actors’ own, many of the actual players in the Manchester scene make cameos in the film, including Wilson himself.
Even so, true fans are likely to be disappointed. Few of the characters are developed, and we don’t get to hear much of the music itself. When not preoccupied with Wilson, the story focuses on Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ life and eventual suicide. Then the film develops tunnel vision. It follows the cash-burning orgy of the Happy Mondays, and largely ignores the rest of what was happening in Manchester at the time: the birth of the rave scene, the beginning of DJ culture, and the careers of other Factory bands like the Stone Roses and New Order.
The best part of the film comes early, in the Joy Division section. Sean Harris is hauntingly good as Ian Curtis; his intense performance of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” could give you chills.
But at no point do we feel what it’s really like to be high on E at The Hacienda, at the moment when Manchester was the hippest city in the world. Instead, we have to listen to Wilson tell us about it.
Much of the dialogue feels improvised. Characters yell and swear at each other, contributing to the manic, anarchic feeling director Michael Winterbottom tries to capture.
Steve Coogan plays Wilson as funny, ironic and smart. But his mumbled narration is difficult to understand, and the character and the film come across as self-indulgent. A solid half-hour of Wilson’s interminable observations scattered through the film is the thing that makes People 30 minutes too long.
In one of dozens of narrative asides to the camera, Wilson explains away an oddly timed disclosure by saying, “This story is not about me.” The line is clearly meant to be ironic. If only it were true.