One to beat

“I can inflict a nasty paper cut if it turns you on, baby.”

“I can inflict a nasty paper cut if it turns you on, baby.”

Rated 4.0

Two wonderfully articulated characters develop a sadomasochistic relationship that somehow seems right as rain in Secretary, a truly bizarre movie about the wonders of bondage at the workplace.

Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has a little problem with self-mutilation. After a stint in an institution where she is supposedly cured, she returns home to her screwed-up family and resumes the business of self-inflicted scar making. She keeps scarring utensils in a carefully arranged sewing kit and sometimes burns herself with hot teapots. She’s also a damned good typist.

Mr. Grey (James Spader) is a lawyer and a terrible mess. He has obsessive-compulsive disorder and hides in his closet when his soon-to-be ex-wife stops by to get signatures on divorce documents. He goes through secretaries at such a rapid pace that he requires a “Secretary Wanted” beacon on his business sign when the latest employee has been booted out the door.

Lee commences working for Mr. Grey, who berates her typing errors. His punishments progress from marking spelling mistakes with red Sharpies, to verbal bashings, and then to the eventual spankings in his office. Lee, who has one of the lower self-esteems of any movie character portrayed in 2002, likes the attention, even if it does result in major red ass. Mr. Grey seems to think he is a monster and has a tough time coming to terms with his penchant for domination.

Sadomasochism, inarguably, is a touchy subject to examine in a film. Somehow, director Steven Shainberg and his actors manage to make the act of putting a female employee in a bale of hay and sticking carrots in her mouth more an act of happy workplace bonding than a porno joke. S/M brings these two sorry souls together, and there is no denying that it’s the way things should be.

This is not to say this film preaches that S/M is a good thing. It simply says it is a good thing for these two characters, a common interest between two people who choose to express their attraction through the occasional ass slapping. Make that the quite frequent ass slapping.

Gyllenhaal, whose brother Jake stars in Moonlight Mile, is my current pick for 2002 breakthrough performance. Lee is a vulnerable sort, but she’s also not afraid to pursue what she wants, and in this case, it’s to have her arms chained to a bar so she must fetch coffee with her teeth.

Gyllenhaal helps maintain sympathy for this character with a sometimes tortured, always optimistic approach to the role. Lee has obviously endured all sorts of childhood hardships. We’d rather see her play these sex games than carving permanent marks into her body. Seeing her quit the carving and attain happiness, even if it isn’t the standard romance flick happiness served up on a weekly basis at your local hellplex, is a good thing.

As for Spader, this could actually be his best work. He does a lot of staring in this film, and while his screaming voice is in fine form, it’s often the intensity of his eyes that helps set the pace and mood of the film. It’s a blisteringly funny performance, with Mr. Grey feeling like an extension of this famed Sex, Lies and Videotape role. He’s never really gone away, but this does feel like a comeback of sorts.

While personal taste might get in the way of your ability to enjoy Secretary in comfortable fashion, it’s hard to deny its high level of originality. It goes to some major extremes to achieve success, and given its subject matter, the film couldn’t get off any other way.