Great Films You Need To See – Secretary (2002)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout March with the theme of ‘sexuality’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case Steven Shainberg’s S&M-flavoured romance Secretary.

Long before the box office submitted to the inevitable adaptation of E.L James’ mummy porn juggernaut, another, altogether more fascinating Mr Grey indulged in a spot of big screen sadomasochism.

A film that doesn't allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook

It helps that the Mr Grey of Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) is played by jittery genius that is James Spader, whose career has been mottled with sexually dysfunctional types, from his impotent voyeur in Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989), to his character’s penchant for amputees in Crash (1996).

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

A nother day at the office for Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Scretary

His is the perfect casting for the eccentric attorney; an obsessive-compulsive misfit who finds his soul mate in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s equally damaged Lee. Fresh out of a psychiatric hospital following a long period of self-harm, Lee soon returns to her masochistic ways in the miserable company of her hard-drinking father and meek, downtrodden mother. She responds to a job advert for a secretary at Grey’s low-rent office (an oft-sought vacancy, presumably, due to the illuminated sign out front) and the pair slowly attune to each other’s wavelength; which just happens to involve acts of BDSM.

The film’s prologue features Lee in bondage performing menial office tasks, before flashing back six months to her leaving hospital. The sight of Lee stapling paper using her chin and fixing up a cup of coffee with her arms bound to a pole is treated matter-of-factly but nevertheless threatens the prospect of a nudge-nudge sex comedy (the misjudged poster also doesn’t help).

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

Eccentric attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) in skulking mode in Secretary

But Shainberg wisely avoids the trap of winking at the audience or going over-the-top thanks to a script that treats its characters with a tenderness and understanding they have been longing for all their lives and finally find with each other.

The Red (actually purple) Riding Hood cloak the wide-eyed Lee wears when she first enters what we assume is the wolf’s lair of Grey’s office is nicely subverted when we see him frantically checking his hair, asking awkward, inappropriate questions of his would-be employee and revealing his carefully manicured orchids; a none-too-subtle symbol of his own fragility.

Interesting...

Interesting…

The film is careful not to rush what is a complex relationship, with their guarded fascination with each other signalled by lascivious glances that suddenly explode into something more extreme as Grey’s dominant demands for perfection from the willfully submissive Lee play out in increasingly intense ways. This extends beyond the office, to the extent whereby he instructs her on how many peas to put on her plate, to the bafflement of her family.

There are other nice touches, particularly between Lee and timid childhood friend Peter (Jeremy Davies) whom she falls into a relationship with to the delight of their parents. Lee’s frustration with the unassuming Peter is palpable, while the look on her face when she spies his picture during a masturbatory fantasy about her boss is priceless.

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

Office work takes a turn for boss E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his Secretary Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

In a breakout performance, Gyllenhaal takes Lee on an involving journey from a child-like waif controlled by her illness, to someone who knows what – and who – she wants and is more than prepared to do what is necessary to get it.

Spader, who reportedly adopted the same hot/cold demeanour with Gyllenhaal off set as Grey has with Lee, is typically hypnotic; all slow, hushed tones and coiled mannerisms that erupt into moments of sexual expression that appear to surprise and thrill him in equal measure.

A film that doesn’t allow itself to be dominated by its subject matter, Secretary is a sweet and gentle romance between kindred spirits, albeit one with an off-kilter and subversive outlook.

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Review – Frank

Anyone who begrudgingly comes to accept their true talent lies not in what they’d hoped will find a connection to this unique and idiosyncratic story about those blessed with artistic creativity and those who hitch along for the ride.

With a free will and an outsider's spirit all of its own, Frank is a wonderful one-of-a-kind

With a free will and an outsider’s spirit all of its own, Frank is a wonderful one-of-a-kind

It’s a fair bet to say that a good number of critics have at least entertained the idea of doing the very thing they write about. In most cases these dreams remain unfulfilled, consigned to the ‘what if’ section of our brain.

In Jon Ronson’s case, he did it the other way around, having played a purposefully cheap sounding keyboard for three years in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band in the 1980s before going on to become a highly respected gonzo journalist and writer of such books as The Men Who Stare At Goats, which went on to receive mediocre treatment in a film of the same name starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.

The various members of Soronprfbs, including François Civil's Baroque, keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and the erratic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Frank

The various members of Soronprfbs, including François Civil’s Baroque, keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), manager Don (Scoot McNairy) and the erratic Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Frank

Ronson’s time with Frank and his real life alter-ego Chris Sievey inspired this bittersweet tale of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), an office drone and wannabe songwriter whose monotonous existence spent living with his parents in a dead-end seaside town changes overnight when he stumbles across the members of Soronprfbs, an avant-garde band led by the larger-than-life Frank (Michael Fassbender), who constantly wears a giant papier-mache head that features an unblinking look of mild surprise.

Jon, like us, is fascinated by the man beneath the fake head and jumps at the chance to join Soronprfbs on a full-time basis as they take to a cottage in the middle of nowhere to record their new album, a year-long process that involves extreme levels of self-indulgence as anything and everything is toyed around with to create the perfect sound.

The band get busy working on their new album - toothbrushes included - in Frank

The band get busy working on their new album – toothbrushes included – in Frank

All the while, Jon chronicles Soronprfbs’ journey through Twitter and YouTube and creates a social media-fuelled monster that leads to a possible big break, but also threatens to destroy the soul of the band and damage the fragile Frank.

It’s not until a good way through the film that you realise just how many levels Frank is working on. In another picture, Jon’s voyage of self discovery would end in a very different – and predictable – way, but rather than helping to inspire the band to achieve deserved success, the actions he takes only end up serving his own deluded ambitions.

The ying and yang of Frank (Michael Fassbender) - Maggie Gyllenhaal's uncompromising Clara and Domhnall Gleeson's Jon, who just wants to be loved

The ying and yang of Frank (Michael Fassbender) – Maggie Gyllenhaal’s uncompromising Clara and Domhnall Gleeson’s Jon, who just wants to be loved

In a painfully well observed opening, Jon tries in vain to fashion a song out of his mundane experiences, only to take to social media to justify his banal existence through pointless tweets. His striving for validation is sought not only from his growing number of Twitter and blog followers whom he panders to with a running commentary of ‘aren’t I crazy’ posts, but also from his fellow band mates, who mostly look at him with indifference, in particular Maggie Gyllenhaal’s erratic theremin player Clara (who comes across like a Wes Anderson version of Karen O from the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs).

Like Amadeus‘ Salieri, Jon knows his talent cannot match that of Frank, so instead becomes a leech in the hope his genius can somehow rub off on him. What Jon doesn’t factor in is Frank’s evident mental illness, which manifests itself through the character’s increasingly unstable behaviour.

Hello audience!! The titular Frank (Michael Fassbender) gets all dolled up

Hello audience!! The titular Frank (Michael Fassbender) gets all dolled up

It’s an admirable turn from Gleeson in a role that’s unlikable only in so much as it’s so painfully believable. Jon almost always means well, but loses his way and drags the band down with him when the prospect of fame and fortune rear their heads.

Considering we cannot see the character’s facial expressions, Frank is a captivating presence, thanks in no small part to Fassbender’s physical performance that lends the character a tragicomic edge which grows more troubling as the film nears its climax. Frank is a blank slate is many ways, a character defined by the ying of Jon’s desire to be loved and break big and the yang of Gylenhaal’s Clara, who has an indefatigable refusal to compromise for fear of selling out. Torn between both sides, the cracks in his personality threaten to break apart.

Frank’s static expression takes on a different inclination depending on the angle of Fassbender’s body and the way he turns his giant fake head, while the film’s final reel is given an extra wallop by the actor’s coiled delivery of the film’s signature tune I Love You All.

Working from a script by Ronson and fellow scribe Peter Straughn (who also penned the screenplay for The Men Who Stare At Goats), director Lenny Abrahamson skirts passed twee farce and instead hits us with a film that’s as moving as it is funny and painful.

With a free will and an outsider’s spirit all of its own, Frank is a wonderful one-of-a-kind.