Secretary: Shainberg’s Offbeat Raunchy Comedy, Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal

Sundance Film Festival, Jan 2002–Offbeat and darkly humorous, Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, based on Mary Gaitskill’s critically acclaimed novella, Bad Behavior, tells the bizarre love story between an unfathomable attorney and his highly insecure secretary.

Joining the ranks of her gifted brother Jake (Donnie Darko, The Good Girl), Maggie Gyllenhaal renders an exquisite performance in a tricky psycho-sexual masochistic role, contained in a movie that teeters on the verge of sleaze and exploitation, but never descends into those domains.

A follow-up to Hit Me, Shainberg’s disappointing feature debut, Secretary clearly shows a talented, still-evolving director who may leave his mark on indie cinema with other quirky and idiosyncratic projects.

This Sundance-premiered dramatic entry, which received the grand jury’s award for originality, was picked up for theatrical distribution by Lions Gate. With the right handling, Shainberg’s quirky item should please sophisticated urban patrons of the specialized circuit seeking unconventional fare.

Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, an impressionable young woman who’s drawn back into a compulsive milieu, when she returns home to her family after spending time in a mental ward. The first reel is a bit weak and dull, due to viewers’ familiarity with the portrait of yet another dysfunctional suburban family, this one headed by Joan (played by the underused Lesley Ann Warren), Lee’s overprotective mother, and Burt (McHattie), her abusive alcoholic father.

In the manner of most youngsters in American films, Lee is alienated from her surroundings, idly hanging around the pool, while still clinging to her old habits of self-induced pain through needles and hot kettle; her body is covered with red/purplish bruises whose mirror-reflection she examines with pleasure. She’s contrasted with her older, more conservative, newly wed sister, Theresa (Locane), who’s the family’s pride and “normal” daughter.

Trying to break the cycle of self-abuse, Lee begins to date straight arrow Peter (Davies, who first burst into the film scene with an offbeat turn in Spanking the Monkey), her nerdy but sweet-natured high-school pal. Their dates are anything but romantic, and their “ordinary” lovemaking, which services his needs, leaves a lot to be desired for Lee, whose heart and mind are clearly somewhere else.

Things change when Lee decides to apply for gainful employment and, after a series of interviews, lands a job at the office of E. Edward Grey (Spader), a seemingly severe and humorless boss. It’s in these sequences that the audience begins to get a glimpse of where the peculiar tale is going to for Grey’s eccentric office doesn’t resemble any legal quarters seen onscreen before. Set designer Amy Danger gives Grey’s office dark colors and strange art works, some of which are later inventively applied.

It doesn’t take long for the bored Lee to develop a crush on her older, rather strict boss, though at first, it’s a one-sided relationship. The turning point occurs one day, when, enraged by her numerous typing mistakes, Grey calls Lee into his office, instructs her to bend over his desk, and spanks her hard while she reads aloud her error-ridden letter. What appears from the outside as an outrageously terrifying and humiliating command, turns out to be a liberating, and even exhilarating act for both employer and employee. Lee perceived it as a miracle that Grey has intuitively broken through her emotional wall and found a way to reach her heart in ways unparalleled by other men.

A dosage of healthy humor is shrewdly inserted into the S&M proceedings to prevent them from escalating into soft porn or quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake. Scripter Erin Cressida Wilson does a fine act in balancing the physical-sexual acts with the far more important emotional-psychological gratification derived by Lee and her boss from their daily, highly anticipated encounters.

With baffling curiosity and delightful, self-deprecating approach, Lee follows her deepest instincts to a place she least expected to go, surprising both Grey and herself with an intense pursuit of unusual intimacy. The filmmakers are successful in showing how both of Lee’s professional and social worlds–the bourgeois into which she was born and the mental institution–shift until they’re entirely replaced by a new set of values and practices.

In a coda that could have borrowed its title from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot–“Nobody’s Perfect”–Secretary ends up on an extremely satisfying emotional note, throwing away in the process the fine line between what’s normal and abnormal, and rendering the “deviant” yarn into a love story that’s most suitable for release on Valentine’s Day, possibly qualifying as a date movie albeit one that’s Off-Off-Hollywood style.

Since the narrative is slight–basically a two-handler–and also risky, the film’s effectiveness and charm largely depend on the actors and the shifty mood. It’s in these two departments that Shainberg demonstrates his progress as a director. Flirting constantly with the dangers of self-indulgence on the one hand, and sensationalist exhibitionism on the other, the director manages to keep the quality of his black romantic comedy from becoming too overwhelming. Letting the loony material speak for itself, he understands that the result of over-directing is like that of over-acting, pushing the viewers away instead of drawing them in. Indeed, Secretary manages to remain amusing and truthful, even when it’s boiling over the top.

Secretary is impressively mounted in all technical departments by producers Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby, who have previously collaborated on the Sundance grand jury winner, Sunday, Michael Almereyda’s postmodern techno-thriller, Hamlet, and the upcoming Sony Classic release, 13 Conversations About One Thing.