Then and Then

'Secretary' and '8 Women' file dated dispatches from the gender wars

This morning I read that the increasing presence of women in the Minnesota Legislature--now around 30 percent--has shifted both legislative policy and process (according to a report by Minnesota's Women's Campaign Fund). Of course, such a finding doesn't prove that women make law differently than men--only that some women in one place at one time made law differently than it had been made before by some men.

The question of whether men and women are essentially the same or essentially different is still, thankfully, a mystery. But I am wondering, again, what the world would see if women got to tell their own stories, publicly, as often as stories are told about them, by men. I wonder about this particularly in relation to the movies, where female writers and directors are even rarer than female state legislators.

The filmmakers behind Secretary include a female writer, producer, editor, costume designer, and production designer. The film is based quite loosely on a bleak Mary Gaitskill story from Bad Behavior. In Gaitskill's original, an alienated young woman from an alienated suburban family discovers a surprising--and fleeting--intimacy with her boss, who spanks her for typing mistakes. Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson flesh out (sorry) that spare sketch. They create a Ghost World scenario where the heroine acts out her cultural rebellion privately, on her own skin.

Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a psychiatric hospital: She was--and still is, we find--a "cutter." With movie-of-the-week glibness, the script explains Lee's self-inflicted cuts as her way of making hidden emotional pain "real." When her new boss, the lawyer Mr. Grey (James Spader), catches her slicing her thigh at the office, he demands that she never cut again. Then he orders her to bend over his desk and spanks her. It feels like a kiss. Lee blossoms under Mr. Grey's hand. She walks more confidently, wears more makeup, and dresses sleeker and sexier. She masturbates. She's happy! She begins to manipulate Mr. Grey into continuing, and even escalating, his punishments.

Gyllenhaal, sister of It Boy Jake, does so many things so incredibly well that she kind of sinks the movie. Shainberg and Wilson have attempted to solve the audience's initial titters by first playing SM for laughs--and Gyllenhaal's sassily serene submissive is up to the task. Yet with a breath, she summons a yawning need that brings the uneasy titters back. Her Lee moves convincingly from misery to mischief, from passivity to selfishness. Under the sway of Shainberg and Wilson, Gyllenhaal makes masochism look like grrrl power. The liberated Lee demands sexual fulfillment, if she has to sit for four days with palms on desk and feet on floor--and pee on herself--to get it.

In comparison, Spader's Mr. Grey is...what? Just an anal-compulsive man who spanks his secretaries? (Apparently it's a habit.) Lee refers to his secret pain, but its source--hemorrhoids?--remains a secret. (I refuse the fallback to "manhood.") Through no fault of Spader, Mr. Grey comes off gray: an easily manipulated, ungrounded character, an extension of Lee's need. Secretary is the mirror opposite of manmade movies with fully rounded heroes and flimsy female love interests. Gyllenhaal's naked Lee confronts the traditional "male gaze" of the camera head on, and points out her scars. But this love story only flips the movies' usual power hierarchy: It doesn't ask whether the scarifying power of love (or the power of the camera) can be shared equally. By the final scene, the film has rendered safely trite everything it once deemed subversive. It's SM for Jane readers.

 

For the French murder mystery 8 Women, director François Ozon employs a formidable array of actresses (Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, etc.) and a female cinematographer (Jeanne Lapoirie). But there's never any doubt as to who's in control. Inspired by George Cukor's The Women, by Douglas Sirk, and by a 1960s mystery of the same name, 8 Women traps six gorgeously dressed white ladies, a high-heeled white maid, and one plainly uniformed black cook on a French country estate with a dead male whom any one of them had reason to kill. The women are forced to sing and dance. The era: the Hollywood '50s. The weather: snowy--and steamy.

Ozon crafts an elegant hothouse of artifice, cleavage, greed, violence, and lesbian sex. Call it a French Silk American Pie--without the tasteless boyish crust. Or Women in Cell Block 9 as designed by Dior. You can tell the movie was made by an arty if not especially witty thirtysomething boy. (Never mind his sexual preference.) Ozon's earlier Under the Sand revived Charlotte Rampling's career, which may explain the bodacious lineup here. Why else would reputable actresses sign up to play unreconstructed female types (the daddy's girl, the mistress maid, the straying wife)? Well, maybe for the clothes.

 
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