SECRETARY — CLASSIC FILM PICK
James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal are superbly cast together in director Steven Shainberg’s quirky and provocative exploration of a romantic relationship built on erotic domination and submission between a sharp-minded attorney and his masochistic secretary. Based on Mary Gaitskill's short story "Bad Behavior," the film became a cultural benchmark for welcoming audiences to identify with its dignified view of BDSM as practiced in a context of normal daily life. Long before “50 Shades of Grey” came along with its mock fetishism, “Secretary” delivered the real goods.
Clever, kinky, and packed with sexual tension, the picture deals with modern sexuality in a refreshingly imaginative yet serious way — not that there isn't a good deal of humor in the air. Shainberg expertly shifts between dark and bright tonal movements. After being hospitalized for harming herself — she's a "cutter," Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) starts dating Peter (Jeremy Davies), an unconventional boy she knew in high school. Peter is nice enough, but he’s not the right guy for Lee. She takes on a full-time job as an old-fashioned typist secretary at a one-man boutique law firm run by E. Edward Grey (Spader). Gary only uses freshly sharpened pencils. Talk about fetishistic. Edward has very precise demands, which extend to the bedroom and other locations as well.
As polar opposites from compatible worlds, Edward and Lee slip into a kinky sexual relationship based on their work dynamic of boss-and-submissive distinctions. After seeing Lee in public with Peter, Edward reacts. Jealously peaks its active head into the equation. The steely attorney sternly judges and corrects every aspect of Lee’s clothing, posture, behavior, and work performance. He knows the kind of firm direction that Lee needs in her life, and he’s more than willing to provide it with just the right amount of authority and dominance.
Angelo Badalamenti's haunting musical score works hand-in-glove with the film's meticulous production design, to imbue the narrative’s path of personal discovery and sexual fantasy with just the right style of musical energy.
Steven Shainberg preserves a high level of erotic anticipation that his empathetic characters fulfill with pleasantly surprising acts of creative physical expression. The film’s poster, of Gyllenhaal crawling on the floor in a business skirt and an envelope in her teeth, accurately captures the film’s bold sense of fun and sensuality. “Secretary” is one tactile movie for adventurous film lovers. You’ll want to watch this one more than once.
Rated R. 107 mins. (A) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)