In spite of its intelligence, style and critical acclaim, Secretary -- which also cleaned up at the 2002 Sundance Awards -- didn't come anywhere near the Inland Northwest.
We missed out, because Secretary is the kind of film that benefits from the intimate close quarters, nervous collective laughter, even the sadistically uncomfortable seats of an art film venue like, say, the Met. In fact, it would seem that director Steven Shainberg doesn't want his audiences too comfy, even while seducing them with witty dialogue and sets saturated in pink. Based on a short story by the deliciously disturbing Mary Gaitskill, Secretary has enough oogly material in the first 10 minutes to supply its own feature- length film. A young woman, Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), is released from a mental hospital only to find herself turning to her old coping mechanisms. Desperate for an escape, she lands a job as secretary for the law office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader).
In a joyfully perverse take on gothic romances, Grey is the moody, demanding Mr. Rochester to Lee's meek, persevering Jane Eyre. But where Jane eventually learns to cherish her own strength and independence, Lee discovers her true calling as a born submissive. In a scene where their relationship quickly becomes anything but professional, there's a moment of revelation that is still one of the most amazing things I've seen in cinema -- indie or otherwise -- in years.
Not everyone is going to like this film, and some might have trouble getting past what looks like Lee's humiliating predicament. But those who do will be rewarded by astonishing performances. Maggie Gyllenhaal's Lee is a gorgeous dork -- unselfconsciously beautiful and suffused with an endearing and goofy charm. James Spader is hypnotic as E. Edward Grey. Few actors can carry off the creep factor and still maintain a certain twitchy sexiness, but Spader is one of the few who does it well.
Director Shainberg also deserves credit for taking potentially cliched material -- i.e., boss/secretary sexual antics, S & amp;M, etc. -- and interpreting it in compelling, surprisingly original terms. Red Sharpie pens replace red roses and spankings take the place of candlelit dinners. But what might at first sound like a movie about two twisted individuals emerges as a touching, oddly sweet romance. How refreshing to see a film that dares to say that what looks sick and wrong can be oh-so-right.
Publication date: 07/17/03