directed by Steven Shainberg
opens Sept. 27 at Metro and Meridian
With most movies, the sex is too obvious: swelling music, shedding clothes, sudden close-ups of body parts not belonging to the actors listed on the marquee. Secretary is different. This deserving Sundance prizewinner is the rare movie where the sex, when it finally comes, is beside the point, since its two lovers have already established an intimate physical and emotional connection of another sort. Based on a 1989 short story by Mary Gaitskill, Secretary's oddly affirmative tale is one of private pathology turned to self-discovery. Instead of therapy, Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) finds a healthier, if still unconventional, outlet for her masochistic tendencies. It may send some feminists up a wall, but Lee looks to be awfully fulfilled in the end.
Lee's previously gouging scars into her flesh prepares her for an unlikely romance while being bound, spanked, and dominated. Attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader) presides over the orchid-filled hothouse of his rococo one-man law practice with, ahem, a firm hand. (And a revolving door—there's a sign outside that lights up "Secretary Wanted" whenever his latest hire leaves in tears.)
Lee comes to know his five fingers of discipline only after fleeing her psychiatrist (Patrick Bauchau), boyfriend (Jeremy Davies), and dysfunctional family (led by Lesley Ann Warren) for Edward's typing pool of one. "I like dull work," she insists to her skeptical employer. She seems woefully underqualified (aside from a fine w.p.m. score), and Edward looks to be the harshest of bosses—hardly a promising fit. He's unstintingly critical of her weak coffee, chronic sniffling, poor speaking voice, mousy fashion sense, and—above all else—occasional typos, which he eviscerates on paper with a drawerful of red Sharpies that he wields with fetishistic power.
Proofreading has never been so sexually charged. In a movie about displacement, each errant spelling invites stern correction. The rising erotic tension between them has to go someplace, and that place turns out to be her quiveringly, willingly upturned ass. Thrilled by her first submission to his palm, Lee muses in voice-over how her once-forbidden masochism is now justified: "He had given me the permission to do it."
THE SECOND FEATURE by Steven Shainberg, adapted by playwright Erin Cressida Wilson, Secretary is a Cinderella story taking place in an appropriately fairy-tale amalgam of past and present-day Florida. It's a kind of Brady Bunch meets Office Space-era collision of mauve, paisley, ponchos, rotary-dial phones, manual pencil sharpeners, and IBM Selectrics (god, how I love that sound!). While the cars are modern and cell phones are glimpsed, the retro vibe seems appropriate to Lee's initial innocence. She starts as an arrested woman-child who's been carving herself since the seventh grade of her Catholic girlhood. (The self-inflicted pain transmutes her family woes, Christlike, into her own blood.)
Edward's no less an oddball (disdaining computers, dialing his phone with a dart, obsessing over his flowers and terraria), but he takes a tender, sympathetic interest in Lee's proclivities. As her S&M tutor, he teaches her to channel what had been self-directed hurtfulness into self- expression, a new ritualized performance that supplants the old. Edward is a repression case who'd rather do push-ups and sit-ups than act upon base sexual urges, an onanistic Prince Charming. Somehow, Spader makes it work, and fastidious Edward emerges as a higher-functioning but still deeply neurotic cousin to his Graham in sex, lies, and videotape. He's likable and icky at the same time because he knows there's something icky going on. And though Edward and Lee's chaste but punitive relationship goes well for six months, he ultimately becomes scared of their encrypted passion. By contrast, avid Lee is delighted at their bond; it makes her finally feel like an adult.
Of course, not everyone is going to buy a woman's tale of self-realization through spanking and submission. Empowerment through alternative sexuality is one thing; preparing for a swat with a saddle on one's back and carrot between one's teeth is another. Secretary treats such moments lightly; for the movie to work, you have to be willing to laugh at situations that fetish-porn aficionados will probably find ridiculously tame.
Even if it drags a bit before a winkingly over-the-top romantic conclusion, Secretary's cockeyed sweetness owes everything to Gyllenhaal's open-faced charm. Previously a supporting player in titles like Cecil B. Demented and Donnie Darko (which starred her brother, Jake), she has her breakout role here. Secretary is Gyllenhaal's My Fair Lady, and Spader her naughtier, uncensored Henry Higgins. Showing a lot of courage, and all her body, she makes Lee's gawky, needy vulnerability endearing and believable. As a result, what some might call her final humiliation instead becomes a beautiful act of devotion.