- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

''Secretary," a sometimes facetious and sometimes propagandistic porn fable about a man and a woman who find happiness by sharing a mutual perversion, begins with a teaser episode whose salesmanship is difficult to deny.

Maggie Gyllenhaal, identified soon afterward as heroine Lee Holloway, is a suburban girl with a huge inferiority complex and a resume of suicide attempts and nervous breakdowns. She is showcased in a lewdly minimal bondage outfit, rigged so that her hands are cuffed to a bar behind her neck. It's an office setting. To compensate for the manual constraints, Miss Gyllenhaal grips a document in her teeth and sashays down a hallway on high heels.

This resourceful treasure discovers her purpose in life after answering a secretarial ad placed by a rather dubious lawyer called Mr. Grey (James Spader). Unlike Miss Gyllenhaal, he doesn't have much in the way of fresh or bemusing attributes to contribute to the portrait of a sadomasochistic love match. He has impersonated effete snobs and perverts a little too often to finesse familiarity.

Lee, the ugly duckling in a brood of suburban caricatures, has no office skills to speak of, and Mr. Grey gives her a hard time about her spelling lapses at the outset. The shortcomings are forgiven when it becomes apparent that she may be a willing, even precocious, partner for kinky sex on the job.

This willingness is confirmed when Lee is called into Mr. Grey's office for a scolding that blossoms into an enraptured spanking. The only question from that point on is whether there's a future for this sort of stolen ecstasy.

The movie's conclusion, echoing the happy hedonist spirit of the HBO porn series "Real Sex," is that, of course, there is. True love has come to the rescue of two lost souls. Maybe a little outrageously, but what alternatives could improve on this serendipitous bond between bondage freaks? To the extent that we're permitted to observe their behavior, Lee and Mr. Grey seem made for each other.

Those who saw Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" with Isabelle Huppert earlier in the year would be justified in jumping to the conclusion that "Secretary" must be the first American feature to scavenge some of its shocking elements. Like the professionally skilled character portrayed by Miss Huppert, the heroine of "Secretary" is given to ritual self-mutilation and craves a sexual partner willing to browbeat and degrade her.

Lee, however, is more in the nature of a sex joke than a sex calamity. Where Miss Huppert made the flesh creep, Miss Gyllenhaal ingratiates herself as an eccentric source of titillation. The sister of the seriously overexposed Jake Gyllenhaal, she's a bit of a chameleon, able to simulate frumpy and trampy vibes with eye-crossing effectiveness. Her face is also a throwback to the rounded and wistful norms of silent film actresses. She's appealing in part because she defies the overfamiliar, aggressive molds of attractiveness and sexiness that one now associates with aspiring starlets or ingenues.

The movie is evidently innocent of any poaching on "The Piano Teacher." Its source is a short story by Mary Gaitskill, and the screenwriter is a Duke University faculty member and playwright named Erin Cressida Wilson, whose credits include such modern classics as "The Trail of Her Inner Thigh" and "Cross-Dressing in the Depression."

The sexual polemics in "Secretary" appear to be homegrown and securely trifling. It remains to be seen what director Steven Shainberg plans for an encore, but if Miss Gyllenhaal ends up as an awards candidate, legions of young actresses will probably be clamoring for a similar showcase of the shy and the shameless.

Despite its humorous, optimistic emphasis, "Secretary" also is fixated on sexual perversity to the brink of monotony. It would be helpful if other characters could intrude and change the subject every so often. In this context even the downcast Jeremy Davies, cast as Lee's expendable suitor, comes as a welcome relief from the erotic stalking and humiliation.


TITLE: "Secretary"

RATING: R (Occasional profanity and systematic, semifacetious depictions of a sadomasochistic liaison; fleeting nudity and simulations of intercourse)

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Shainberg. Screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes


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