If Secretary were cheekier, more flip, and less compassionate than it is, a better title would have been Sadomasochism and the Single Girl or The Slap Heard 'Round the Office.
The film tells the story of a nervous, insecure young secretary who finds true love with her masochistic, yet somehow tender, boss. Bear with me now. It's the kind of movie that people talk about when they walk out of a theater muttering, “That was different” - although, frankly, I may be understating the reaction. The very first scene shows Lee, our young heroine (Maggie Gyllenhaal), confidentially, even blissfully, strolling through her office, making coffee, stapling papers, all the while handcuffed to a metal pole strapped across her shoulders.
All together now: Oh my.
Stick with the film. The next shot is Lee a few months earlier. She's stoop-shouldered, yanking at her knee socks. She's just been let out of a mental hospital. She cuts herself, and beneath her sleeves and pant legs, her skin is an assemblage of bandages and scars that looks like a trail map of Patagonia. Institutionalization didn't help; the minute she's back in her toxic household, she lunges for something sharp or scalding hot. Director Steven Shainberg makes the point very evident: Lee tries to substitute one pain for another, to block out the hurt of an alcoholic father, among other problems less well-defined.
That she doesn't come off as pathetic is a shock. Gyllenhaal, sister of Jake, is what's often called a non-traditional beauty. But she is so radiant, so camera-ready, with the goofy smile of a natural star, the phrase feels foolish. She is nothing less than a revelation - it's a word that's popped up in many reviews for Secretary, but it's the right word. Her eyes are enormous, her face is a moon and remarkably elastic, capable of reservoirs of kindness. As the film goes on, we sense her performance growing shaded and complex.
She draws sympathy without trying, and it's a rare thing, to watch an actress go from weeping willow to bold confidence in one slow fluid motion. It's a personal evolution, or revolution, occurring before our eyes, and she's the best reason to see the picture.
But not the only one. Lee turns her life around when she meets Mr. Grey, played with sweaty strangeness by Mr. Sweaty Strangeness himself, James Spader. The first time she enters his office she's wearing a hooded purple raincoat tied around her shoulders - Little Purple Riding Hood. Grey is a sheep in the big bad wolf's clothing. He seems to have some unspoken secret on his lips at all times, and something passes between them.
“You're a wall,” he tells Lee, and she knows what he means, but she'd never heard it put that way, and her face floods with relief. Someone noticed. “I know,” she says quietly.
Here's where the film turns a corner. Lee is submissive. One day Mr. Grey screams at her for a typing error. He asks her to bend over his desk, and she does, and he spanks her. Her face is all shock, but it's not the kind of shock you'd think: it's the shock of someone recognizing his soul mate. It's here that Secretary will either delight you or send you up a politically correct wall. Because rather than filing a harassment suit, Lee blossoms. The thing is, you see, she likes it, and when Mr. Grey stops playing games with her - “We can't go on like this 24 hours a day,” he says - Lee begins inserting typos.
You might be amazed to learn Secretary is very sweet. The effect of watching it is a little like watching a waiter balance six trays at once. You sit at the edge of your seat, and what drives everything forward isn't the story so much as the allure that this high-wire act could crash at any moment.
One would expect a movie this provocative to play as bad satire, and it is mannered and overly silly near the end, with moments that you want to believe more than you believe. But the whole thing works more than flops, and the reason is the characters are engaging, and Shainberg doesn't opt for a simple cautionary tale, shock tactics, or an ironic ending. Their happiness is not a sham.
The movie doesn't argue for sadomasochism. The point is more that this relationship works for these people, and they're happy and not hurting anyone, and what's wrong with that? For the rest of us, Secretary is a kind of perverse reassurance that there's someone out there for everyone.