DVD, Blu-ray Movie Review
Directed by Steven Shainberg, written by Erin Cressida Wilson, 104 minutes, rated R.
By Christopher Smith
The quirky sex comedy, "Secretary," asks what better life for a masochist than the life of a secretary, a career that - depending on the sadist in charge - can offer a perfectly humiliating mix of degradation, domination and abuse.
The film, which director Steven Shainberg based on a script by Erin Cressida Wilson, is hardly for everyone, certainly not for those who find nothing amusing about a self-loathing, mentally unstable woman who finds true love with the help of the back of her boss's hand.
Still, for those with a taste for satire and - more importantly - a dark sense of humor, "Secretary" turns out the lights and offers a twist on your typical 9-to-5 world: What if there were a secretary who enjoyed being verbally abused and mistreated, someone who craved the discipline of a slave-master relationship and actively sought the occasional slap across the backside to boost motivation?
That's the situation in "Secretary," a film that some circles might consider the feel-good Blu-ray release of the year.
In the film, Maggie Gyllenhaal (actor Jake Gyllenhaal's sister) is Lee Holloway, a repressed, self-destructive young woman just out of a mental hospital who finds work as a secretary at the law offices of E. Edward Grey (James Spader), a man whose name intentionally recalls cartoonist Edward Gorey, as both share a worldview that is offbeat, to say the least.
Initially, Lee's relationship with Edward is pedestrian - she does as she's told, fetching cups of coffee, taking her share of memos and making her share of mistakes.
If it's those mistakes that incite Edward's wrath, then it's Lee's eagerness to correct them - and please Edward - that ignites his curiosity.
Indeed, as the film unfolds and it occurs to Edward that Miss Holloway, as he calls her, might actually be sexually turned on by his criticisms of her and her work, the dynamic between them shifts as their sadomasochistic tendencies are flung free.
Remarkably, none of this comes off as misogyny, particularly since Spader plays Edward as a man repelled by his sexual compulsions and since Lee manipulates the relationship to get exactly what she wants. It's she who is the aggressor here, not Edward, in spite of the fact that it's she who's being bent over a table and spanked into submission.
That all of this is played for comedy - with a few moments of drama tossed in for good measure - makes "Secretary" an unusual film, so much so that it earned a Special Jury Prize for Originality at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.