Share via Email Maggie Gyllenhaal in Secretary: Steven Shainberg's kinky two-hander restores its potency and even prestige.
In its gamey way, Shainberg reintroduces the intimacy and concubinage always inherent in the idea of a secretary; to have a secretary is itself to have a secret.
His film - co-adapted by Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson from a short story by Mary Gaitskill - provides a satire, albeit of an ambiguous and frankly pornographic kind, on political correctness, on the power relations of modern work and the sexualisation of the office environment in which the prosperous western salaryman class spends more and more of its time.
Those of a sensitive disposition should stop reading right now. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee, a secretary in a tiny community law firm who adores making typing errors so that her handsome but strange boss Mr Grey can bend her over his desk and give her a damn good spanking. She keeps copies of her error-strewn letters, marked with Mr Grey's red pen, as a masturbation aid.
Her own humiliation has become pornography. So is Lee a smart, wised-up chick, exploring the transgressive side of her sexuality? Is she just earning cash being a secretary before heading off to do a master's at UCLA? This is the first job poor Lee has ever had, having just been released from psychiatric care, where she was unsuccessfully treated for addiction to cutting herself. She lives at home with her mother and sisters, and does nothing there but float around the pool - a little like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate - and her inner thighs are patterned with scars and Band-Aids, as Mr Grey discovers early on when he makes her bend over to do something demeaning.
Inevitably, Grey is played by James Spader, now the film world's go-to guy for perv roles of every kind. But he plays the part superbly, as Gyllenhaal does hers. Where she is gawky, submissive and quietly passionate in the new role life has found for her to play, Spader is pop-eyed and purse-lipped, an obsessive-compulsive martinet about office discipline even without the weirdo sex.
Grey's office is like a cottage with its own bizarre, baroque corridors leading to his private sanctum - like the headmaster's study or father's bedroom - where he and his secretary will not be disturbed.
The building has a sign outside with "Secretary wanted" sign which can be lit up or not, according to need, like the "Vacancies" sign outside the Bates motel. There is something horrifying and fascinating about the things Grey asks her to do, especially in a world where everyone is so concerned about boundaries and inappropriate behaviour.
One of Lee's jobs is to keep the office mousetraps constantly replenished with cheese: When he asks Lee to sort through the trash to find a document he has accidentally thrown away, she eagerly climbs into the reeking dumpster like a disturbed child.
And when she finds the crumpled, stained document, Grey coldly informs her that he had a copy in his desk anyway. These are scenes you have to watch through your fingers.
Grey stunningly redeems himself with a seduction scene which ends not with sex, but an avuncular act of kindness. He finds out about her self-harm and tells her he understands, tacitly revealing himself to be a kindred spirit of dysfunction.
Then he decrees that she will "never, ever" cut herself again. Solemn and awestruck, Lee agrees to his order. This brilliantly compassionate scene lays the foundation for their deeply disturbed and disturbing relationship - but a relationship that Lee comes to believe has a fierce and compelling poetry of its own.
As one confessor figure tells her: Other dramas, like David Mamet's Oleanna and Dylan Kidd's Rodger Dodger, have investigated this post-feminist, post-liberal tragicomedy of outrage. Secretary is closer to something like Ionesco's The Lesson: It proposes a happy ending which does not involve anyone being cured or having their minds changed about whether what they are doing is right.
It does not condemn the sub-dom relationship or present it as a metaphor for injustice; actually, it cheekily presents the whole business as counter- cultural domesticity. But bafflingly enough, this is a plausible and engaging love story, terrifically performed by Spader and Gyllenhaal.
Love is a sickness, they say, and in its own sick way, this has fervour and warped, erotic rapture. And it's very funny.