is either a well-loved examination of an unusual romance, or a stunningly bad portrayal of an unusual romance.
Or just downright disturbing.
It is a story about Lee, an emotionally unstable woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal
) who starts the film after being released from a psychiatric hospital, where she was put after an incident of self-harm went too far. She finds a job as a typist under Edward, a demanding lawyer (James Spader). After some time, the two develop a sadomasochistic relationship, and are forced to deal with the personal and professional consequences.
Based on a short story
by Mary Gaitskill, who is known for stories centered on emotionally damaged women and deviant sexuality, and directed by Steven Shainberg. Also notable for some unusual choices in direction, particularly with regards to soundtrack; the development of the relationship between the main characters is marked by the length and quality of the silence between them.
- Adaptation Expansion: The original story is only 15 pages, and the protagonist is not named.
- The Alcoholic: Lee's father.
- Anguished Declaration of Love: Lee near the end of the film.
- Aside Glance: In the last scene, Lee suddenly looks straight into the camera — and the effect is quite powerful.
- BDSM Equals Love: The film doesn't really show Lee and Grey share anything other than their fetishes... unless you count the mutual inability to open up emotionally, a very deep shyness that they handle in different ways. A longing to really understand each other, without really daring to let it go anywhere.
- Bathtub Scene: Two of them.
- Beautiful All Along: When Lee's self-image finally becomes positive, we finally see her completely naked, relaxed, and lit with a warm yellow glow — reflecting how she now feels that she is beautiful.
- Bondage Is Bad: Edward seems to have this mindset in the beginning, giving him some internal conflict.
- Can't Act Perverted Toward a Love Interest: Edward. Commitment Issues ensue.
- Casual Kink: While most of Secretary averts this, it does pop up twice. In the middle of the movie, Lee is listening to a tape about coming out as a dominant or submissive, assuring the listener that BDSM unlocks the potential for a wider range of experience. More importantly, the movie has a happy ending where Lee finally gets rid of her fiancée (whom she never wanted; he was pushed on her and she wasn't assertive enough to say no), comes out as a masochist and finally demands a real relationship with Edward. Some people are pissed at her, but her father stands by her side and asserts that he's proud of her. Edward overcomes his fear and they live happily ever after.
- Chocolate of Romance: Offered Lee by Edward, twice.
- Closed Door Rapport: Edward and Lee.
- Conveniently Common Kink: Inverted. Lee only discovers her fetish during her stint as the secretary, so Grey directly influences her "choice" of kink.
- Covered with Scars: Lee, thanks to self-harming since she was in seventh grade. It's oddly handled since the first time we're shown the full extent of this is during the Beautiful All Along scene mentioned above, but since Lee finally feels herself — including the scars — to be beautiful this becomes only a passing (and by that point irrelevant) detail.
- Creepy Good: Edward.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: One of the rare American non-porn films to show a female character masturbating, including The Immodest Orgasm. (The Grunting Orgasm finds its place in the movie as well.)
- Disposable Fiancé
- Dream Sequence: Lee's fantasy.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Both characters had a hard time earning it.
- Extreme Doormat: At the beginning of the film, Lee is such a doormat that she can't even hang up on a telemarketer. Becoming a BDSM submissive makes her more assertive.
- Fan Disservice: Maggie Gyllenhall's bare thighs, yay! Except she's mutilating herself with a sharpened ballerina doll and scalding herself with a hot kettle... not so yay.
- Flower Motifs: Mr. Grey's orchids and the flowers in Lee's daydream.
- Genre-Busting: Has elements of Black Comedy, Rom Com, Le Film Artistique, and Porn with Plot (but It's Not Porn, It's Art).
- Grew a Spine: Lee, thanks to her non-standard relationship with Mr. Grey.
- Hollywood Masochism: Averted except for the basic premise. Being one of the very few romantic comedies about BDSM, it is also one of very few romantic comedies that starts with the protagonist getting out of a mental hospital (and she didn't end up there out of some wacky misunderstanding).
- Hope Is Scary: It is strongly suggested that Lee would prefer not to leave the mental institution.
- In Medias Res
- Internalized Categorism: At first, Edward believes that bondage is bad. It makes him very unfair to himself and his submissive, who he seems to blame for tempting him. Lee eventually manages to snap him out of it.
- Interplay of Sex and Violence
- Intertwined Fingers: After the well-known spanking scene. Very brief and subtle.
- Intimate Psychotherapy: Her relationship with Edward cures Lee's psychological problems; it can be argued that it also helped Edward.
- I Uh You Too: Edward near the end of the movie.
- Kinky Spanking: Lee Holloway's boss, Mr. Grey, was originally spanking Lee for typos.
- Love Letter: Subverted: Edward's short letter is never sent, and Lee's message is a very unusual one, as it includes a living worm.
- Masterof The Mixed Message: Edward.
- Middle-of-Nowhere Street: Mr. Grey's office.
- Mood Whiplash
- My Own Private "I Do"
- No Sparks: The reason Lee left Peter.
- Not Good with People: Edward.
- Office Romance: Spanking With The Boss.
- Big Damn Kiss/Official Kiss: Averted, as First Kiss is not shown on the screen, and all the kisses which ARE shown are somehow non-standard (e.g. the characters Almost Kiss, one of them doesn't close their eyes etc.)
- One-Hour Work Week: Played realistically. Between the boss' near-crippling mental issues, Unresolved Sexual Tension and some very involved sex play, not much gets done at E. Edward Grey's office. However, it's never pretended that he's a successful or busy lawyer.
- Pet the Dog: Mr. Grey's releasing the mice from the trap.
- Potty Failure: Lee experiences one when Edward orders her to sit in his chair without moving her hands or feet until he returns, to prove her loyalty/submission. An order which she actually follows for days on end (Maybe that's also one of the reasons why the first thing Edward does after returning is bathing her).
- Property of Love: The kind of relationship Lee wants, and gets in the end. The film is a mixture between drama and Romantic Comedy, revolving around the BDSM version of this trope. The main storyline is about the main character wanting to be truly owned by her boss.
- Race for Your Love: Lee, near the end.
- Revised Ending: The original story ended with the protagonist quitting, feeling disgusted, and then being called by a reporter digging for dirt after "the lawyer" announced he was running for mayor. The movie ends on a much happier note.
- Probably because in the story BDSM is played as a sexual deviancy and something "forbidden" while in the movie BDSM is shown as just another type of sexuality and as a normal and healthy expression for those with BDSM tendencies. The movie shows the protagonist becoming empowered and happy when finding someone to share her desires with and love. The story, well...
- Romantic Runner-Up
- Runaway Fiancé
- Safe, Sane and Consensual
- Safe Word: Lee uses it after Edward fires her.
- Secret Test of Character: Edward's behaviour towards Lee near the beginning of the movie can be interpreted as this.
- Sexy Secretary: Lee.
- Shoo the Dog: Edward's decision to fire Lee may have been motivated by his intention not to hurt her in the future.
- Shrinking Violet: Lee.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: Purposeful, according to Word of God. To cite just one example, an alternative-rock rendition of "I Will Survive" plays when Peter and Lee have sex.
- Stepford Smiler: Lee's mother.
- The Stoic: Edward, although really it's just a mask concealing his emotions.
- Symbolic Mutilation: Lee.
- Symbolism: Orchids, the worm, the cockroach, a dancing ballerina...
- Testing the Love Interest: What Edward does after Lee comes to his office in a wedding dress can be seen as this.
- Subordinate Excuse: It's in the title. Verges on a type of Happiness in Slavery by the end.
- Super OCD: Edward has a pretty severe case of it.
- Surreal Humor
- Terrible Interviewees Montage: When Lee tries dating via personal ads, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places.
- Troubled, but Cute: Lee.
- Truth in Television: See Extreme Doormat above. Anecdotally, there is nothing ironic about it at all. Many people who have submissive desires find themselves empowered when they are able to experience those desires with a caring partner. Further, Lee acting as the strong emotional center and her strength being what allows the dominant to embrace his role in their relationship is also quite common. It's called power exchange for a reason.
- Uncanny Atmosphere: Edward's office is filled with it.
- Virgin in a White Dress: Strongly subverted, as we know that when Lee puts on her wedding dress, she's far from innocent (nonetheless, after she does it, there is indeed a wedding.
- You Make Me Sic: Mr. Grey's displeasure with Lee's spelling errors and typos are an entry into kinky sex.