In Secretary, a Steven Shainberg-directed adaptation of a Mary Gaitskill story, it takes mere hours for Maggie Gyllenhaal to find her way from the exit of a mental institution to a personalized toolkit filled with implements she uses to cut herself. If her release hadn't coincided with her more popular sister's wedding and her alcoholic father's public falling off the wagon, it would probably only have taken a little longer. One way or another, the film suggests, she needs a bit of pain to get through the day. Trained only in typing, but quite good at it, Gyllenhaal goes looking for her first job and finds it in the office of James Spader, a lawyer who keeps a "Secretary Wanted" attachment permanently mounted beneath the sign bearing his name, lighting it up when necessary like a motel with an empty room. What starts as punishing assessments of typographical errors balanced with an odd tenderness keeps inching toward a more intimate bond, until one day Spader tells Gyllenhaal that she'll never cut herself again. Not long after, the spankings begin. Balancing black-comedy quirkiness with a desire to take its characters' needs seriously, Secretary would be lost without actors up to the task. Fortunately, it has them. After sex, lies, and videotape and Crash, Spader is any smart casting director's first choice to represent redirected sexuality, and the look on Gyllenhaal's face during her first session of unmasked kinkiness says it all: Has she finally found what she's been looking for, or gotten herself deeper in the soup? They play the situation charmingly, and it helps loosen up a film that continually threatens to turn overly schematic. Extremely neat in its psychology and in its sexuality—as much "office/casual" as "bondage/domination"—for all its slapping, it seems a little too timid, leaving the matters of class and gender to drift off in the background, as Gyllenhaal finds happiness in slavery at the hands of her employer. For a film dealing with living metaphors, Secretary seems curiously averse to subtext. Regardless, there's something appealing about an unapologetic love story set in an office that's only a few clicks off from looking like a fetish dungeon, and Spader and Gyllenhaal make sure that the romance, kinks and all, carries the day.
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