Secretary  (2002) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

I found Secretary to be a very satisfying film, although it is determined to be as strange as possible, and I don't often take to films when they are laboring to be offbeat.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a girl from a dysfunctional family who has just been released from a mental institution. Her particular psychological disorder is auto-masochism. (She repeatedly inflicts pain upon herself in private.)

In order to integrate into "normal" society, she applies for a job as a secretary at a lawyer's office. This is where it starts to get downright crazy. The office has a big lighted sign outside - "secretary wanted" - it looks like a "no vacancy" sign at a seedy roadside motel far from civilization. Passing the cheesy sign, she walks into an elegant and magnificently designed building - a cavernous office styled in greens and golds, which appears to be capable of housing dozens of people comfortably. In the middle of the foyer is a very disgruntled women emptying her desk. The desk is surrounded by garbage, which is strewn everywhere. She grabs her box full of possessions, and leaves wordlessly. Her departure leaves Gyllenhaal standing alone amidst the chaos, announcing herself with a shout down the vast hallway. It turns out that the massive building houses only one lawyer, a very introverted and eccentric fellow played by James Spader.

After an uncomfortable interview, Gyllenhall is hired to be his secretary.

As she settles into the routine of the job, she finds that she's not allowed to type with a computer. All work is done on old-fashioned typewriters only. This is a deliberate ploy by Spader to get the secretaries to make mistakes, so he can punish them. The previous secretaries didn't find it very rewarding to be made to crawl along the floor with reports in their mouth, or to bend over their desks to be spanked vigorously. But Gyllenhaal is not just any secretary. She's a loony, after all, and her disorder is masochism. It's a match made in heaven. Spader finally has a secretary who likes his sadistic ministrations, and Gyllenhaal finds that she likes this type of masochism much better than the self-administered kind.


Early in the film, Maggie Gyllenhaal does some inexplicit nudity - a breast barely visible in the bathtub, bending over without her panties, but seen from the side.

In the last five minutes of the film, Gyllenhaal is seen in several full frontal poses, as well as other which expose her breasts only. It is a beautiful sequence of nude scenes.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1. The colors are excellent, but the blacks are not deep (it is slightly undercontrasted), and  there is interlacing in frame shifts during camera motion scenes.

  • writer/director commentary

  • photo gallery

  • behind the scenes gallery

 The film starts out with the two principals avoiding each other, shifts to a pure sexual S&M relationship in which they have no real personal contact, and finally settles on a tone of gentle romantic comedy. You probably think that S&M is as far from tenderness as one may go on the sexual spectrum, but this is actually turns out to be a very sweet and tender movie. Imagine Tom Hanks as the Marquis de Sade, giving a woman a spanking because she really wants one. Spader is actually ashamed of his sadistic proclivities, and is trying to quit, but Gyllenhaal will have none of that.

This film has a certain kinship with David Cronenberg's Crash, in that you could react by saying "this is absurd, and not at all like real life". There's some truth to that, but as in "Crash", once you accept their alternate world, which is like our world, but not quite the same, everything makes sense, or at least as much sense as things ever make.


Secretary (2002) is a romantic comedy, but the central conflict that drives the story is not as much about the relationship between secretary Maggie Gyllenhaal and boss James Spader, as the inner conflict within each of them. As the film opens, she is being released from an institution where she was placed after a supposed suicide attempt. Actually, it was not a suicide attempt at all, but a miscalculation during one of her self-mutilations, something she had been doing for many years. She clearly didn't much like the hospital, and we learn in a few very brief scenes that her father is an abusive drunk, and her mother practically stalks her, so home is not her favorite place either. She attends secretarial school, and lands a job with James Spader. The rest of the review could be considered a spoiler, so don't read on if you plan on seeing this film.

Spoilers Ahead

Spader, we slowly learn, is a dom, but is ashamed of his tendencies. When Spader comments on her self-mutilation, and correctly guesses why she does it, she believes that a relationship with him is possible. After he spanks her for frequent typos, she is in love, and on her way to a realization that she is a true submissive. So the real story here is her awakening, and acceptance of her masochistic tendencies. Spader is virtually helpless around her, and can't control his urges to dominate. Gyllenhaal is now in the strange position of being a submissive trying to get an unwilling dom to do what she wants. When she finally has the nerve to confront him, she uses a safe word, "time out," that she has picked up from reading about dominance and submission, and he does not even recognize it. At this point, she understands him better than he understands himself, and we see a key point about the lifestyle. Not only does the submissive have the easier job, but it really they who control the relationship.

In the commentary, the director and author repeatedly talk about scenes that were radically cut, but the cuts mostly shortened back story, letting acting deliver the background, and kept the focus on the relationship between Spader and Gyllenhaal. In the end, we see that the two have become a normal, happy suburban couple that happen to be into a dominant/submissive relationship. There is a final subtle joke in the ending, where she drops a dead roach from her pocket onto a freshly made bed, and smiles broadly, knowing that she will get the paddling she wants when he gets home. If this film has a message, I suppose it is that the dominant/submissive scene might seem bizarre to outsiders, but it is one normal choice of lifestyle. Along the way, the film provides much insight. It is an intensely sexual film. Gyllenhaal has two very hot masturbation scenes. and Spader one.

The Critics Vote

  • General USA consensus: three and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3.5/4, Entertainment Weekly A-.

  • Maggie Gyllenhaal was nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actress

The People Vote ...

  • IMDB summary. Voting results: IMDb voters score it a fairly respectable 7.3/10, but Yahoo voters appraise it higher at 4.3/5, and Metacritic voters higher yet, at 9.4/10
  • Box Office Mojo. It was marketed as a niche product, with penetration never exceeding 149 screens. It is a minor cult hit, grossing $4 million and earning some award season buzz. It lasted 13 weeks in theaters, and consistently pulled in a good average per screen.


The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Tuna says, "It is not easy to make an entertaining film from this subject matter, and the director and the writer deserve much of the credit for pulling it off. It was also very well cast. I think this film has an audience beyond those who would normally be in favor of  S & M and B & D films, and is therefore a B-."  Scoop says, "C+. All the potential for a cult smash for a tiny but devoted audience, although mainstream audiences will find it outré. Magnificent art direction, black comedy, and ultimately a tender (if decidedly quirky) romance. Beautiful nude scene in the final five minutes. My only complaint is that they had no idea how to end it."

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