The Secretary set Sundance audiences atwitter with its hyperkinky story of a sadistic lawyer and his young, subservient typist. Now, if more of the festival-goers had been familiar with the HX personals, they wouldn’t have been nearly as scandalized. That isn’t to say the movie’s not packed with demented, erotic acts, it’s just that you’re sure to find more shocking exploits in the back pages of the magazine you’re holding in your hands right now. Still, for mainstream audiences, I guess it is something of an eye-opener.
The real surprise is that this twisted tale of torture is actually a love story, a sort of romantic-comedy version of 9 1/2 Weeks. In it, Hollywood It-Girl Maggie Gyllenhaal (sister of sleepy-eyed heartthrob Jake) plays Lee, a miserable wretch recently released from a psychiatric institution, where she’d been placed as a result of her habitual self-mutilation. With very few skills and no self-esteem, she applies for a job as secretary to Mr. Grey (James Spader), an eccentric attorney who dials phones with darts and stocks medical supplies in his desk drawers.
Something about Mr. Grey’s penchant for circling every one of her typos in thick, red ink brings out the latent submissive in Lee, and the office is soon charged with a sadomasochistic sexual electricity. Before long, she’s happily digging through garbage and crawling across the floor for him. As her errors increase in number, Mr. Grey resorts to more severe forms of punishment: bending her over his desk and lifting her skirt for an old-fashioned spanking. Lee’s obvious enthusiasm for such humiliation causes a tendril of intimacy to creep from the more menacing areas of his psyche. Suddenly, what was meant to be a routine confined to the hours of 9:00 and 5:00 takes on a larger significance for both of them. Eventually, the pair, both of whom considered themselves unworthy or incapable of love, discover unfamiliar feelings of affection intermixed with the darker of their desires.
Both actors shine in what were undoubtedly very difficult roles to create. Gyllenhaal’s wide-eyed innocence masks a much more jaded persona underneath. And Spader, with his spine-chilling monotone and waxy, wrinkle-free face (can somebody say Botox?), is perfect as a domineering control freak. We never know exactly where Grey is coming from, but this only adds to his mystery.
The movie takes a slight misstep toward the end, trading its quirky approach for more conventional cinematic storytelling. This lessens the impact slightly, but doesn’t make the film any less entertaining.