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Or How I Learned to Stop Cutting Myself And Love the Whip

By Jed Horne

Staff Writer


Written by Steven Shainberg and Mary Gaitskill

Directed by Steven Shainber

Starring Maggie Gyllenhall, James Spader, Jeremy Davies

Rated R

I was excited about Secretary from the first time I saw a preview for it, but I was a little puzzled by how fascinated I was when I finally got to see it. It wasn’t until about a quarter of the way through that I realized why: it was the film’s titular psychotic, played with pin-point accuracy by relative newcomer Maggie Gyllenhall (pun intended). Her mannerisms -- doe eyes, facial ticks, pitiable voice -- reminded me exactly of this girl I knew in high-school, someone with a similar penchant for pain and an equally unhealthy obsession with a member of the opposite sex (namely, me).

Recipient of the deserved special jury award for originality at this year’s Sundance, Secretary is certainly that -- original. In his first wide release, director/co-writer Steven Shainberg takes a pair of taboo subjects, sadomasochism and sex in the workplace, and spins a deceptively endearing and hysterically funny story that remains biting despite being a little sweeter than I would have liked.

When Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhall), an over-protected, dumpy masochist, is released from a mental hospital, her first order of business is to find a job. She quickly finds a perfect match in Edward D. Grey, Esq. (James Spader), a quirky lawyer who changes administrative assistants as quickly as he can light up the bulbs on the “secretary wanted” sign outside his office. Between work and dinners at the laundromat/diner with her loser fiancÉe (Spanking the Monkey’s Jeremy Davies), Lee passes her time cutting herself and fantasizing about her boss. When she discovers that Edward has secrets of his own, Lee learns that true love knows no bounds, and that a good spanking is a pretty decent substitute for cuticle scissors.

Shainberg deserves credit for much of Secretary’s success. Screenplays are rarely intelligent, sexy, and funny at the same time, and certainly the film’s subject matter could have been hammed up or exploited for strictly prurient effect. It’s the unusual movie that can see the tenderness of mailing a dead worm to a reluctant lover, or the sexiness of proofreading in red marker. James Spader is as good as ever -- voyeurism is certainly nothing new to the star of Sex Lies and Videotape, and he handles a difficult role with plenty of poise. But the real show stopper in Gyllenhall. Despite a relatively short list of credits (including Donnie Darko and Cecil B. DeMented), she shows a knack for subtlety essential to the movie’s success. And I don’t know if it’s makeup, clothing, or good acting, but her character (convincingly) goes from being merely cute to fabulously good-looking in less than two hours. And damned if she isn’t a dead ringer for my high school stalker.

My one beef with the film is the artistic direction. A few good shots and an eye for interior decoration give Secretary an original look, but choppy editing and a couple of annoying stop-motion shots are more aggravating than original. But there’s enough going on here to earn forgiveness for a few mistakes. Keep an eye out for the young director Steven Shainberg. If this performance is any indication, you won’t have to do the same for Maggie Gyllenhall -- she’ll be hard to miss.