The Dysfunction-Obsession-Fetish Trifecta in Secretary (2002) and The Piano Teacher (2001)
I watched Steven Shainberg’s Secretary (2002) years ago, knowing nothing about it, except for the fact that it contained depictions of self-harm. As something I was still struggling to comprehend about myself, I figured that watching an on-screen representation might light the metaphorical bulb over my head.
I was taken aback, then, when the story took a sharp turn into BDSM and romance; and while I wasn’t completely put off — the film is oddly charming, and handles its strangeness well — I nonetheless felt slightly hoodwinked. Years later, I can recognize that Secretary had always presented itself as an exploration of romance on the fringes. I was the one who hadn’t gotten the memo.
Around the same time, I watched Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (La Pianiste) (2001), and while both films are thematically similar, it was a decidedly different experience. For one, it depicts its inherent violence with much less sentiment, all the while taking a much more ambiguous stance regarding the takeaway audiences are supposed to grapple with.
Secretary follows Lee Holloway, who’s been recently released from the hospital, following serious self-harm. In an attempt to placate her mother’s fears and project the impression of emotional stability, she gets a job as a secretary for Edward Grey, a demanding attorney. Despite his initial harshness, he starts to betray his true feelings: he is as attracted to her as she is to him, and they begin something resembling a relationship. She is happy to be the sub to his dominant personality, and to engage in a BDSM dynamic, which intersects with her secretarial duties. For example: she makes typos in reports on purpose because she knows it irritates him, and in turn, it makes him want to punish her.
Eventually, though, Lee’s feelings for Edward deepen, and so do his; but he is so afraid to reciprocate and show emotional vulnerability that he fires her. In the meantime, Lee settles for another man, the more conventionally romantic Peter, and nearly marries him, but realizing her love for Edward, just as he realizes his for her, they both reunite. Theirs is a happy ending: they marry and freely continue to explore the BDSM tendencies that brought them together in the first place.
The Pianist treads similar paths, but lays them down differently. Erika Kohut is a repressed piano teacher at a prestigious Vienna conservatory, and very early, one realizes this is going to be a bleak affair. She also self-harms, and like Lee, lives with her mother. But where Lee’s Mom is remotely affectionate, Erika has a codependent relationship with the mother who treats her like a barely functioning adult, despite the evidence that she can take care of herself.
Her sadomasochistic inclinations are enshrouded in the shame of the double life: Erika clearly has sexual desires she can barely contain, and which manifest themselves in increasingly worrying ways. She cuts herself on her labia, either out of punishment or arousal; she witnesses a couple having sex in a car, and is so stimulated by the sight that she pees outside their car; she frequents a video store to watch porn, while sniffing used tissues.
These images set the tone for her impulses in a less lighthearted way than Secretary does for Lee, and when Walter Klemmer, a young piano prodigy with a dangerous edge to him, comes into the picture, this is only accentuated. Walter is titillated by the frigid front Erika puts up. He rapidly becomes obsessed with her, and she with him, although she tries to feign indifference. Their relationship deteriorates as it intensifies, because underneath the pretense of a normal relationship, both Walter and Erika ultimately want to hurt themselves and each other.
The ensuing fallout is disturbing: Erika bares her soul, revealing the depth of her sexual fantasies, which are shocking to Walter, and he takes it as an insult to the “simple” ideal he wants from her. He breaks into her home, sexually assaults and beats her, and while he goes on contentedly with his life afterward, she is left to pick up the shattered pieces of her future. The story ends with Erika stabbing herself in the shoulder with a knife.
Watching both films again back-to-back made me realize that for all their differences in tone and atmosphere, both did similar things with respectively ambiguous themes. Both intertwine romance with depression and pain with pleasure, which is not unheard of, but which certainly gives pause, when one probes further.
BDSM relationships are perfectly normal when both parties are consensual and of sound mind. But can we really call Lee and Erika of sound mind? Can we really call their relationships consensual? The women are deeply troubled, and clearly, their issues stem from unresolved trauma.
Erika’s father lives in an asylum, suffering from deep psychiatric issues. Lee comes from a broken family, and has clearly not been given healthy outlets to express her anguish. They are repressed and lonely, and the men who walk into their lives are manifestations of the fractured paradigms they’ve been drawn to, because of their troubled psyches. Edward is bossy, bordering on cruel and domineering. Walter is offended by the word “no”, and frequently tramples on the boundaries Erika tries to put down.
Romance is suggested as the alleviation of the darkness in both films, but in each case, it raises eyebrows.
Edward is, at times, surprisingly nice. But most of the time, he is closed off, and seems more keen on ensuring that Lee is devoted to him, than in offering her that same devotion. One can’t help but wonder whether what they have is simply a powerful attraction or a strong infatuation: the chase, after all, is always more exciting than the destination, and the pushing of the limits of acceptability always feels more rewarding than staying in line.
This is exemplified toward the end of the film, after Lee runs out on her nuptial arrangements with Pete to tell Edward how she feels. He decides to put her to the test, and orders her to sit, unmoving, in a sitting position, until he tells her to stop. For three days, Lee sits immobile in Edward’s chair, eating and saying nothing; he finally realizes that she would do anything for him, and only then does his frigid reluctance thaw away, and he finally lets her in.
On the one hand, an unconventional relationship could only have an unconventional conclusion, so Secretary isn’t exactly surprising. But on the other, I couldn't help but be slightly put off by what this spelled, regarding Lee’s untreated issues — which I’ll get into in a bit.
Erika and Walter’s facsimile of a relationship unfurls in comparably questionable ways. He constantly pressures her for sex and/or affection, and she tries to convince him to hurt her, because it it the only thing that excites/placates her, but when he eventually does, he crosses unforgivable lines.
Additionally, they become possessive of one another, with unsettling results: at one point, Erika becomes jealous when she sees Walter being friendly with one of her piano students. Erika breaks a glass and slips the shards in the girl’s coat, which gravely injures the poor girl’s hand and threatens her future as a pianist. This not only points to Erika’s deep issues: it is also very telling about Walter that instead of scaring him off, this incident only fuels his voracious desire for Erika. This in turn validates Erika’s feelings, while burying the root of her dysfunction.
This is where both films blur the lines.
Lee’s self-harm and emotional issues are treated like less of a mental illness than a quirk, so that when she escalates to sadomasochism in her relationship with Edward, it’s as if she is rewarding her kinkiness. It is indeed conceivable that some self-harm stems from enjoying the pain. I know I certainly felt that way about mine, sometimes. This challenges the notion that theirs is a potentially abusive bond, even when more than once, is threatens to go beyond the Dom/Sub confines.
But while Secretary, ultimately, does justice to the complexity of BDSM, the way it treats self-harm and depression does not, in my opinion, adequately address their gravity.
Oddly enough, I came to the opposite conclusion with The Piano Teacher. Indeed, both films take a blunt look at taboo and marginal desire, but The Piano Teacher leans into the dysfunction so much that Erika’s self-harm and Walter’s obsessive feelings are reframed into a bleaker light. They are willing to accept their dark impulses not because they are quirky human beings, but because they are broken people.
Hence, their Dom/Sub dynamic feels deeply wrong, where Lee and Edward’s deep unhappiness felt misplaced somehow. The latter couple is “cured” by finding one another, while the Erika and Walter are thrown into precipitated disaster by coming together.
Secretary and The Piano Teacher aren’t perfect films if we observe them through this limited scope. They oscillate between the dual poles of Love and Death, never settling completely on one or the other. Still, they are rich in subtext, and daringly tackle their subject matters.
Assimilating these examples of marginal cinema at such a young age has stayed with me, and made me see the world differently.
Secretary taught me that my Achilles heel — namely my propensity to express my anguish through self-inflicted injury — could become something strangely beautiful if I found the right person to help me work through it.
The Piano Teacher, on the other hand, warned me that the same Achilles heel could be my downfall if I crossed paths with a person who was even more damaged than I was.
When seen from outside those limited scopes, however, both films acquire a more ambiguous quality. They are hard to pin down, because so many themes fluctuate in and out of them; and perhaps, in the end, that’s the point.
Maybe Secretary doesn’t care about being a self-harm film. Perhaps it simply wants to give a voice to a woman who is unashamed of her unconventional desires. Maybe The Piano Teacher isn’t a thriller at all, but a slow burn, character portrait of a woman, as she loses control of her self, faced with an indomitable mother and an abusive lover.
Whatever the answer, both films deserve nuanced, and repeated viewings to come to terms with the elusive quality at their centers: and perhaps that matters more than trying to find an answer where there is none.