Secretary (Cert 18)

by ALEXANDER WALKER, Evening Standard

My spirits didn't rise when I read a brief synopsis of Secretary. A girl being spanked for pleasure? They drooped even more when I saw 'Sundance Festival Special Jury Prize'.

A 'Sundance' film, once the mark of originality, is now as formulaic as mainstream Hollywood product. But what a surprise Secretary turns out to be.

Freshly conceived, small-scale and daring - and so rigorously directed by Steven Shainberg that 'pornography' is not the first or last word to come to mind.

Its 'overture' scene awakens your curiosity. In white blouse and pencilslim skirt, but holding a cane on her shoulders like an oxen yoke, a secretary manages to extract documents from an in-tray, carry a sheaf of paper in her teeth, and return to her (unseen) boss - the very image of a beast of burden. Then the story starts.

Maggie Gyllenhaal (yes, Jake's sister) plays Lee, a problem girl. Living with her disturbed family, she has taken to self-abuse: she covertly wounds herself with her sewing kit to get through to her inner pain, then Band-Aids the cut as part of a healing process.

One day, she cuts a vein by mistake, and ends up having psychiatric treatment for attempted suicide. On her release, she applies for a secretary's job.

"I'm shy," says Mr Grey, her potential boss (the creepy James Spader) when she catches him fixing his hair in a mirror before he interviews her. "You're not shy," she retorts, "you're a voyeur." She understates it.

It's an odd kind of office: just him and her mostly, hardly anyone else around. Probably this reflects the movie's frugal budget, but it assists the curious mood of concentrated undercover eroticism that develops. The oddest thing is that Lee has to use a golfball typewriter, not a word processor.

The reason soon emerges: spelling errors can't be corrected, and are ringed in scarlet by Mr Grey, who gradually leads her from accepting blame for her 'typos' to accepting pain as punishment.

Making her lean over his desk, he lays hand-to-behind in a sound spanking. Is she resistant? No, she is elated. This is better than being asked to freshen his coffee or have her humility tested by being required to retrieve files from a dumpster.

This sequence is treated with such discretion and functional application that it is not remotely exploitative. In fact, it is to become therapeutic.

The old Hollywood formula of the 'meeting cute' has been refurbished as the 'beating cute'. It takes a masochist to know a sadist, and Lee's future prospects and personality brighten considerably.

At the same time, it is genuinely unsettling. We are let into the girl's complexes, but not into the guy's, and, for all we anticipate, this could still turn out very badly, and at one point looks as if it will.

Mr Grey's problems go deeper than hers. They perplex him and cause him shame. But when he abandons his role as 'dominator', and, instead of laying his hand pleasurably on her attendant backside, pleasures himself, she is sent into depression at the thought of returning unchastised to the Tippex and the do-it-yourself routine.

It is an odd film. But what is oddest, as well as its restraint, is the irony that the self-abasement by both parties eventually raises their self-esteem.

It is based on a short story from a collection called Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill. Shainberg and his screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, haven't opened it up - much. When they do, bringing in briefly a 'normal' guy (Jeremy Davies) who tries things the normal way with Lee - a move that offers her an alternative lifestyle - the tension sags and you want to be back in the office with Mr Grey.

Occasionally, another woman, unnamed and unannounced, bursts in as Lee is at the Olivetti, tramples furiously on Mr Grey's trench coat and exits with a flash of contempt. That's about all we know of Mr Grey's " outsideî life: and all we need to know.

I've seldom seen a film that makes such a virtue of its pared-down content and cast - or turns what many would regard as a vice into a riveting bit of cinema that purges it of offence and makes its practitioners explicable and even sympathetic.

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