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Secretary (R)
Lion’s Gate
Official Site
Director: Steven Shainberg
Producers: Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby and Steven Shainberg
Written by: Mary Gaitskill, Erin Cressida Wilson and Steven Shainberg
Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren

Rating: out of 5

Deviant sex and James Spader. James Spader and deviant sex. They seem to go together like actors from the WB and bad horror flicks. For an actor who’s made over 40 films in his three decades in the biz, a good portion of them involve a lot of pain and a lot of sex all at the same damned time.

Spader’s latest go at debauchery is Steven Shainberg’s Secretary. He plays off-kilter attorney E. Edward Grey, who’s looking for, you guessed it, a new secretary. He finds exactly what he’s looking for in young, naïve Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal). Recently released from a mental hospital for cutting herself, Lee wants to get out into the world and away from her array of dysfunctional relatives and her pathetic boyfriend Peter (Davies). She finds an ad for a secretary in the classifieds, gets the job and boom! The rest is sadomasochistic love history.

Since most people don’t usually string S&M and love story into the same sentence, Secretary wins originality points from the get-go. In fact, it took home the well-deserved Sundance Special Jury Prize for Originality. But aside from a great story, it’s the acting and the moody set design that set Shainberg’s third feature film apart from all the rest.

Spader turns in another of his masterfully crafted creepy-sexy roles. It’s hard to decide whether you want to console Grey or hate him, tell him it’s okay to like pain or want to inflict it upon him yourself. Reminiscent of his disaster-sex-loving character in David Cronenberg’s Crash, Spader aptly portrays Grey’s struggle between thinking his sexual proclivities are evil and really wanting to smack his secretary on the ass. Hard. When Spader has good material, he’s quite amazing to watch and with this film, he rivals his performance in sex, lies and videotape.

But his performance would have meant nothing without the amazing talent of Maggie Gyllenhaal (the other half of the soon-to-be-uber-famous Gyllenhaal siblings). In her first major role, she brings a huge, radiant, wounded animal presence to the screen. The physical pain that her character desperately tries to feel and the emotional pain that drives her to harm herself manifests itself in her every glance and movement. You can’t help feeling for Lee, want to help her, want to end her suffering.

And though he’s barely in the film, it wouldn’t be right to not mention Jeremy Davies. His depiction of Lee’s mentally unstable, sex-starved boyfriend, Peter, is one of the funniest onscreen characters in some time (funny in that painful-to-watch way). With this film coming hot on the heels of the fabulous CQ, watch for Davies to become the new “it” boy.

In the end, Secretary is a great love story. Unconventional, sure, but who’s to define some else’s true love? And that’s the whole point. If you’re lucky enough to find love in this world, do what makes you happy, whether it involves pain, bondage, or whatever. Who knew S&M could teach us so much?

—D. Renae Bolen


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