Is Secretary an exploitation movie? On the one hand, its content and marketing are built around fetishized kinkiness; specifically masochism. A young woman (Maggie Gillenhall) takes a job as a secretary and then spirals into an S&M relationship with her boss (James Spader.) When she commits a typo he spanks her; he also exercises dictatorial control over her eating, personal tics, and dress. He even saddles her like a horse at one point. And we do see Gillenhall naked, in a scene that feels pretty thoroughly gratuitous.
But of course it’s not exploitation. Its contemporary for one thing; no drive in audience. Furthermore, Gyllenhall’s agonizingly awkward relationship with…well, everyone, is explored in way more detail than you’d get in an exploitation movie. Really, this is a chick flick, about getting your man, much more than it is about sex for its own sake. It’s relationship porn, not porn porn.
The movie’s commitment to a happy ending is actually, its greatest weakness…and also the thing that absolutely distinguishes it from exploitation films. Exploitation films can be very, very bad: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of my current most hated movies, I think. But when they’re bad, they tend to be bad all through; you rarely see an exploitation film spend it’s first three-quarters putting together a thoughtful, coherent world, and then chucking it in the last half-hour in a panicked search for a sufficiently dramatic/happy ending. If an exploitation movie is going to be bad, it tends to start in right from the get-go on the sucking. It doesn’t save it up for the last reel. Conversely, when exploitation movies are good at the beginning, they tend to follow their logic through with a certain remorselessness. If it’s a rape-revenge movie, you end with revenge; if it’s a women in prison film, you end with everyone breaking out and then (often) getting killed. If it’s a sex comedy, you end with everyone pairing up.
Part of this is that exploitation movies are shorter (an hour and a half, rather than 2) so there’s less room to muck things up. But part of it is about genre, I think. Exploitation films are wedded to genre, which tends to integrate the end with the rest of the piece; every move is already handed down from time immemorial. There’s no getting part way out the door and suddenly realizing your shirt clashes with your tie and you’re not wearing any pants.
In Secretary, on the other hand, the scriptwriters (following a Mary Gaitskill story) have an idiosyncratic story: a repressed young girl with a deeply unhappy family life stumbles upon another equally emotionally crippled individual, and hijinks ensue. She gets something from him, but he’s pretty clearly a horrible, horrible prospect for a long term relationship — he’s so detached from his own emotional life that he seems only dimly aware of what he’s doing with Gyllenhall, or of why he’s doing it. This seems more or less true to Gaitskill’s story (from what I’ve been able to glean of it), in which the two protagonists do not end up living happily ever after because, well, the guy, whatever his attractions, happens to be a total prick.
But the movie can’t handle it. The closest genre conventions are those of romance, and, so regardless of logic or consistency, the movie seizes upon them with a death-grip. The story, which starts out as about Gyllenhall’s emotional and sexual troubles, undergoes a hideous spasm, and turns into a story about The Girl Saving Her Man with Love. At first the S&M is presented as a way for Gyllenhall to control and manage her panic, isolation, and repression — it’s a sexual kink, and she indulges in it for herself, not for Spader. At the end, though, she’s putting her suffering on public display in a test of endurance to show Spader and the world that she’s worthy of him — and/or to break through his insecurities and neurosis with the power of her love. It’s Pretty Woman with dog collars, basically.
What’s especially striking is that this is an independent movie marketed for its edge; at least in theory, it’s not Hollywood. So why not just admit that these characters are never, ever going to have a relationship together — that, in fact, pairing Gyllenhall with Spader is about the meanest fate you could imagine for her, not because he’s a sadist (which is what she wants) and not because he’s completely unsympathetic (which he isn’t) but because he’s a fool and a jerk (which is what nobody wants)? Every woman doesn’t find true love, and every man sure as hell doesn’t deserve to be saved. Who exactly would be hurt by a downbeat or ambiguous conclusion?
Other than the investors, I mean. I don’t know; perhaps in the end the commercial imperatives are so crass and so naked that maybe it really is exploitation after all.