Directed by: Steven Shainberg
Premise: A shy young woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal) takes a secretarial position with a demanding attorney (James Spader). Their relationship evolves from a strict employee-employer relationship into a sexual, dominant-submissive one.
What Works: Secretary takes on the subject of sadomasochism in a very forthright and interesting way. The film does not simplify the subject to an exposé of depraved or mentally ill individuals nor does it use the sexuality in exploitative ways. Instead, Secretary displays sexual desire and gratification as a product of character. The sexual awakening of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is paired with her growth an assertive, independent woman and the relationship between her and Spader’s attorney, although dominant-submissive, is not perpetrator-victim. The S&M scenes of Secretary are shot with great restraint, which makes them far more intense, and they keep the focus on the characters and the evolving relationship between them. Maggie Gyllenhaal is terrific as an awkward young woman who finds a release for her daily anxieties by living a dominant-submissive lifestyle and the screenplay and her performance make her character a dignified individual who is not an out-of-control sex maniac but a whole person looking for satisfaction but also for love. Spader has a similar journey to go through, opening himself up and breaking down barriers that he has set up between himself and the world. The actor has subtle work to do here, but it is effectively carried out. The courtship between the two characters is interesting and, like the S&M scenes, it is done in ways that are consistent with character.
What Doesn’t: The ending of the film follows a lot of conventions of the typical love story. It gives the relationship a happy ending and the way the love story is ultimately resolved is consistent with the rest of the picture, although it steps away from the more intense scenes earlier in the picture.
DVD extras: Commentary track, photo gallery, and a featurette.
Bottom Line: Secretary is a very good romance, albeit an unusual one. Aside from the S&M content, the film is unique in that it connects this woman’s search for love with other demons in her life and treats her as a mature, complete character. Secretary may not be a romance for everyone, but it is a very well made picture.
Episode: #178 (February 10, 2008)