Orchids and sexual obsession in Secretary and Adaptation

Orchids and sexual obsession in Secretary and Adaptation

For Valentine's Day, Joanna McClurg explores the sexual subtext of orchids – throughout history and into two very different films: Adaptation and Secretary

In supermarkets, we always avoided the orchids. My mum, whose love of flowers was otherwise all-encompassing, would forage through buckets of cramped bouquets in search of the healthiest blooms, but never managed to admire their exotic, potted neighbours. While the browning heads of old roses and chrysanthemums proved the vitality of those coming into flower, the orchids’ uniform perfection felt phoney. I didn’t share her dislike. To me, the magenta petals were glamorous. Glamorous in the way that precious jewellery or tropical fish are glamourous; Dinky and meticulous as a Michelin star dessert.

Mine and my mum’s differing opinions on orchids speak to two distinct chapters in the flower’s story; The orchids in shops today are clones, not grown from seed but created in laboratories. As my mum intuited, their beauty is contrived, designed to sell at scale. Prior to such scientific advances, when orchids were exclusive, wealthy collectors sent orchid hunters on deadly missions to track down rare varieties for their greenhouses. Like me, these looters were intoxicated by the flower’s otherworldly allure. The most fascinating aspect of the orchid’s story, however, lies outside the sphere of modern scientific and colonial endeavour; The sex life of an orchid is a far more impressive undertaking. Species like the bee orchid and fly orchid have evolved to mimic the appearance of their pollinators and trick them into transferring pollen in a frenzied, futile mating marathon. 

We fans of the flower might include ourselves in the list of animals they’ve successfully seduced. We too see sex suggested in their petals. In The Orchid Thief, author Susan Orlean explains, “The word ‘orchid’ derives from the Latin ‘orchis’, which means testicle”, referring to the “testicle-shaped pseudobulbs of the plant”. Meanwhile, Georgia O'Keeffe orchid paintings present an alternative female anatomical parallel. John Laroche, the titular protagonist of Orlean’s book, compares his obsession with the flower to “chasing a green-eyed woman”, while poet J. D. McClatchy likens the plant’s “sweet trap” to that of his male lover. 

In the autumn of 2002, The Orchid Thief received a dizzyingly original screen translation; Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation is a metafictional meditation on its own laboured creation. We follow screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicholas Cage) as he grapples with self-loathing, sexual neurosis and the responsibility of moulding Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) profound but dramatically sparse source material into something cinematic. Charlie’s obsession with his screenplay morphs into an obsession with Susan, whose story, following orchid thief John Laroche, unravels in parallel.

Remarkably, Adaptation was not the only film released in late 2002 to explore the relationship between orchids, sex and obsession. Secretary, directed by Steven Shainberg and based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill, charts the coming-of-age of Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a young woman with a history of self-harm who enters a sadomasochistic relationship with her eccentric, orchid-growing employer Mr. Grey (James Spader). A staple of horny, taboo-breaking cinema, Secretary’s influence can be seen everywhere from Fifty Shade of Grey to Saltburn. While its kooky, irreverent sensibility bears little resemblance to Adaptation’s smart, reflexive satire, the orchid is essential to the erotic and neurotic character of both films.

Secretary’s Mr. Grey is an atypical love interest, even for a film about atypical love. He’s anxious, inappropriate and capricious. His mind is tortured by sadistic thoughts that disgust him as much as they excite him. He relies on ritual and aggressive bursts of exercise to suppress his shameful urges. Yet, at certain moments, we witness something soft and self-contented in Grey. One of these instances is when he is tending to his orchids. The precision and control with which Grey cultivates his flowers are symptoms of his obsessive disposition, yet they also suggest a sensitivity and appreciation of beauty, as noticed by Lee.

Orchids also reveal a lot about the inner life of Charlie Kaufman, a character just as well-acquainted with self-disgust. Having fled from an opportunity to meet Susan, whose book (and author photo) he’s long fixated over, Charlie laments, “I have no understanding of anything outside of my own panic and self-loathing and pathetic little existence. It’s like the only thing I’m actually qualified to write about is myself.” Charlie proceeds to write himself into his screenplay. He is moved by Susan’s “sweet, sad insights” on orchids, but in his attempt to write a film that “shows flowers as god’s miracles”, he instead shines a light on his own narcissism and loneliness.

Not only do orchids help us understand how these dysfunctional men relate to themselves, they also show how they relate to women. In Secretary, the use of the colour purple in Lee’s clothing connects her to Grey’s orchids. This connection deepens in the film’s final act, when Grey carries her to his elaborate orchid nursery, bathes her and lays her on a bed of grass. The sex that ensues does not adhere to their usual sadomasochistic dynamic; Grey delivers kisses with a delicacy he’s rarely displayed outside of his terrarium. Lee has replaced his orchids. She is now his precious project. This metaphor ultimately naturalises the couple’s deviant sexual relationship, assuring audiences of the nurture and care that accompanies their kinky antics.

In the chaotic mind of Charlie Kaufman, there’s a similar blurring of the floral and the female. A dream sequence brings to life his masturbatory fantasy of taking a young, friendly waitress to an orchid show. In a sunbathed Eden behind the event centre, she playfully kisses him and removes her shirt. When Charlie actually visits this orchid show, he is alone. His yearning for women overpowers a passage read from The Orchid Thief in voiceover: “There are more than 30,000 known orchid species. One looks like a turtle. One looks like a monkey… one looks like a school teacher, one looks like a gymnast, one looks like that girl in high school with creamy skin…” Charlie’s thoughts drift from the flowers to the faces of the women admiring them. His efforts to appreciate orchids expose and inflame his sexual frustration.

Secretary features a similarly Edenic masturbation dream, this time rendered in oversaturated early-noughties CGI. Lee, who has recently discovered her submissive sexual identity, imagines herself standing inside a giant purple orchid. She is somewhere between the girlish Thumbelina and Botticelli’s voluptuous Venus, petals replacing her scalloped shell. She climaxes while envisioning herself bent over before Grey, framed by his orchids, ready to be spanked. Lee’s confidence grows as her relationship with Grey replaces her need to self-harm. In an exchange recently reproduced in Saltburn (in an excruciating scene between Oliver Quick and Felix’s sister Venetia Catton) Grey authoritatively informs Lee that she will never do ‘that’ again. In his arms, after her final act of devotion and rebellion, she rejoices: “For the first time in my life I felt beautiful, finally part of the earth. I touched the soil.” She no longer suffers alone; she is in full bloom.

Susan’s sexual metamorphosis in Adaptation is almost as dramatic as Lee’s in Secretary. As Susan interviews Laroche, his passion for orchids inspires a longing in her. “I wanted to want something as much as people wanted these plants,” she says. “I want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.” Her husband, who sleeps beside her as she thinks, does not excite her, but Laroche, though crude in manner and appearance, possesses a refreshing joie de vivre and offers observations of unexpected wisdom and beauty. As with Grey, orchids illuminate an obsessive aspect of Laroche’s character while also softening him and winning him female affection. In the film’s final, entirely fictional act, the respectable author flees New York to have an affair with the orchid thief, and appears nude on his porn site. A transformation indeed.

As I reflect on these films, which see so much of life and love inscribed inside orchids, a small one sits on my chest of drawers. Given to my mum as a gift from her friend, its donation to me was inevitable, though not before its blooms had fallen away. I’ve trimmed it in two places now. It’s not much to look at. I’ve read I might wait a year to see flowers. A year to wonder what colour they’ll be and what I’ll see in their seductive symmetry.

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