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"Secretary": as much about spanking as "Moby Dick" is about whaling.
Guest Writer

Spelling errors and all
by Amy Nuttbrock

here aren't many films involving sadomasochism that I wouldn't beat off to.

I'm thinking of Kim Basinger in "9-1/2 Weeks," provocatively blindfolded and teased with ice cubes by Mickey Rourke; Madonna, as a sadomasochistic murderer in "Body of Evidence," dripping hot wax on the bare chest of Willem Dafoe; Corinne Clery in the soft-core French adaptation of "The Story of O," receiving a flogging from Anthony Steel; or Bulle Ogier as a dominatrix introducing Gerard Depardieu to the ways of sexual dominance in "La Maîtresse."

These scenes are prurient, hypercolor pinups tacked to our more carnal, pleasure-seeking sensibilities. They're titillating, curious and as adventuresome as we feel comfortable with – a kind of burlesque entertainment that rubs up against our erogenous parts.

But genital close-ups, engorged soundtracks and lax mouths are as predictably static as flipping through Hustler. There's a lot of show, but hardly any telling of how or why it feels good. It's fun; stylistic jerk-off material for the sexually experimental, the open-minded, or anyone.

Spader and Gyllenhaal: pushing limits.

Likewise, it's easy to roll an eye at the seemingly kinky, gratuitous S/M scenes in "Secretary." And, depending on who you are, just as easy to yawn and head for the exit. We're talking generous spankings, office masturbation complete with perfect, jagged moans and sex toys you could purchase at a tack-and-saddle shop.

But "Secretary" is as much about spanking as "Moby Dick" is about whaling. And the focus of the film isn't all that sexual.

Directed by Steven Shainberg and expanded by Erin Cressida Wilson from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, "Secretary" is one of the few films that rides the context of S/M while employing it as a vehicle for empowerment, psychic relief and intimacy. The film also addresses such rare Hollywood themes as self-mutilation and the tenderness involved in the S/M dynamic, without leaning toward clinical case study.

This is a bold, sweet and often comic love story, unafraid to push the limits of what is emotionally and sexually normal.

Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a fearless performance as Lee Holloway, a worried young woman with a thing for cutting herself, who has just been released from a mental hospital. Lee's pain and youthful fragility are palpable as she arrives home to an alcoholic dad, high-strung suburban mom and unavailable newlywed sister.

Gyllenhaal: trading knowing glances and provocative smirks.

Despite her emotional discomfort and relapse into self-mutilation, Lee displays a tentative strength as she applies for the position of secretary at the law office of E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Mr. Grey, with his organized stash of red pens, elaborate indoor biosphere, and terse, bug-eyed persona, is a delightful obsessive-compulsive ready to explode (or implode). It's his expressive face and tight-laced hands that suggest a bottled vulnerability not unlike that of his new secretary.

The majority of the film tracks the growing intimacy between Lee and Mr. Grey, as the two embark on a master-slave relationship that, at first, seems a shocking display of power imbalance.

Mr. Grey orders her to prepare his coffee, reset his mousetraps, dig through the trash for a file he already has. Lee passively sniffs and plays with her hair while submitting to each of these outrageous orders. All the while they trade knowing glances and provocative smirks.

Before long, spelling errors elicit enthusiastic paddlings and a mutual crush becomes apparent. By all accounts and purposes this would rattle any sexual-harassment attorney, but because this film is more surreal fable than terse account of office S/M, there's a delicate balance in place.

While Lee readily submits to her boss's demands, spankings and diatribes, Mr. Grey anoints his own self-loathing by denying himself all forms of human contact. Lee and Mr. Grey are equal parts dominant and submissive. And their relationship intensifies through a mutual understanding of one another's pain and vulnerability – benefiting them both in the end.

Lee's transformation is most notable. Once coy and nervous, she becomes controlled and confident in her newly appointed position. She sheds her drab secretary attire and is immediately more erect and vibrant. She begins to feel understood.

In a particularly touching scene, Mr. Grey orders Lee to stop cutting herself while surprising her with an empathy that marvels Robin Williams and Matt Damon's characters in "Good Will Hunting." Through this overt tenderness, Lee is finally able to access the emotional relief that she requires.

Mr. Grey, more fragile than ferocious, goes through his own transformation as the film winds toward a pastel-colored ending that's almost too good to be true, but not implausible given the surreal parameters.

"Secretary": a special award winner at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival for "Originality."

The ending may be one of the more deliberate and well-thought-out scenes in the film. Those familiar with Gaitskill's story by the same title will notice that Shainberg's characters achieve the intimate bond and connection that Gaitskill's characters struggle to locate but rarely find within the same context.

Through Lee and Mr. Grey's complex ebb-and-flow courting waltz, "Secretary" is like the cat that swipes your hand, retreats, wraps around your ankle, retreats again, then ultimately decides to curl up in your lap.

And in the end, the film is a celebratory gesture of tolerance and compassion.

Not only does it vindicate left-of-center behavior by highlighting its most human qualities, it also allows its characters, especially Lee, to emerge totally self-actualized and even normal – beautiful scarred torso, spelling errors, and all.

E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.

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