Secretary (18)

Dictating to the perverted
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The Independent Culture

"My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror." Thus said W Somerset Maugham, and his words will resonate deeply after a viewing of Secretary, a comic-neurotic fantasy on the romance of S&M. Surprise, certainly, unless you're perfectly au fait with the scenario of a secretary crawling down the corridor on all fours and submitting herself to a spanking over the desk from her boss. ("Oh, that old routine," sighs the captain of industry.) Horror? Well, some might feel a bit squeamish, but surely the overpowering feeling in this instance is curiosity.

One kinky poster – a peachy bum, bent and hovering atop long, shapely legs – suggests a rather more titillating experience than Secretary provides. It is too strange a film to be reduced to porno-peek imagery. I felt less freaked out by the sexual content than by the sight of Maggie Gyllenhaal's oddly numbed, heart-shaped face as her character, Lee Holloway, emerges from a psychiatric hospital to attend her sister's wedding. Amid the festivities she seems to float through the crowd, unreachable in her misery. Life chez Holloway is not a bowl of cherries; her father is a violent drunk, Lee is mutilating herself, and her mother (Lesley Ann Warren) has locked the knife drawer. Things can't get much worse.

But they can get much weirder. Lee applies for a job as secretary at a local law firm, and immediately senses something peculiar about her prospective boss, Mr Grey, and his questions. Could be it's the halting lilt of his voice, or the wanly insincere smile. Or the wacky, colour-coded decor of his office, a cross between a Chinese brothel and a David Lynch dream sequence. Or maybe it's just that the guy is played by James Spader, supercreep, monster of smarm, and exactly the type of actor to whom a bruising dose of S&M would be meat and drink. Wake up, Maggie! I wanted to say: don't you recognise this sleazeball from Wolf and Crash? Apparently she does not, and her face breaks into a beatific smile when she clinches the job. "Secretary" – she breathes the word delightedly, as another might say "Beauty Queen".

Lee and Grey don't seem such a great match at first. He's exasperated by her "sniffling" and the way she plays with her hair, and with her sloppy work. Then he notices the cuts and stitches on her legs. He tells her to stop it, she complies, and without quite knowing how, some corner is turned in their relationship. Lee's typing has provoked Grey into angrily circling her spelling errors with red ink, and one day he finally cracks: he summons her to his office, hands over the offending missive and tells her to bend over his desk. While she reads it, Grey whacks her bum with the flat of his hand. After two or three minutes of this he reels away exhausted. One is tempted to giggle, if only because of the matter-of-fact way this little bit of disciplinary action is administered and received.

For Lee, however, it constitutes her first-ever office romance. She begins to delight in Grey's control-freak directives: having been told over the phone precisely what she should eat at dinner, Lee spoons exactly one scoop of mashed potato and four peas on to her plate while her family looks on in bewilderment. When she goes out for her sandwich at lunchtime, his clipped command rings in her ears: "No mayonnaise."

What the director Steven Shainberg subtly establishes in this relationship is a curious strain of tenderness, or at least as tender as anything can be while one partner is wearing leather restraints. Shainberg cites Blue Velvet as a formative influence, and while Secretary has nothing as sexually disconcerting (eg Dennis Hopper) there is a light-headed, hallucinatory charge at work that feels of a piece with Lynch's film. (The only other American movie I've seen recently that catches this elusive dream-atmosphere is Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides.)

There is, too, an absolute determination to make this a story about two specific people rather than a "statement" about twisted sexuality. As Shainberg comments: "You don't make movies about 'men' and 'women'. You make movies about this guy and this woman and if you get them right, you'll automatically connect with a lot of people." Quite so. The benefit of such an approach is that the characters will appear to have lives of their own, and audiences, used to formulaic behaviour, won't ever feel sure what they're going to do next. So when Grey tries to withdraw from the relationship – "We can't go on like this 24 hours a day" – Lee lures him back by inserting deliberate typos into his business letters. The reappearance of his red marker pen will give Freudians plenty to chew on.

As the dysfunctional duo Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader are terrific, her guileless, slightly Forties presence an appealing contrast to his uptight fantasist. (Spader's one great moment is the sudden cocking of his head, as if he were in the hands of some invisible puppeteer. Truly, he is the Uriah Heep of modern cinema.) Secretary is absorbing and lighter in tone than one might expect, though the screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, adapting from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, makes a mistake with the ending. Then again, perhaps a story such as this has no satisfactory ending, and we should just feel consoled that (who knows?) there is somebody out there for everyone.