You may be required — grudgingly, perhaps — to admire “Secretary” for its devotion to its concept. It posits that no relationship should be considered taboo or unacceptable as long as both parties are getting fulfillment out of it, and that includes sadomasochistic couples.
If you are turned off already, you are well within your rights, and I suspect even director Steven Shainberg would freely admit “Secretary” is not for everyone. It contains no graphic sex or violence (or even implied violence), but the relationship between quirky perfectionist lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader) and his obsessive secretary Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is uncomfortable and squirmish. Not to mention funny, upbeat and oddly compelling.
Lee has just returned home from a mental institution, but her parents’ dissolving marriage and her father’s inappropriate advances toward her drive her back to the same old habits of self-mutilation and other obsessions. She gets a job working for Edward, and a spanking he administers after she submits a typo-ridden letter unlocks the door to Lee’s twisted little heart. These two were meant for each other.
There are moments in the film that are nearly unwatchable, except that they fully embrace the weirdness of the situation. Shainberg never flinches, and neither do his actors, who play the roles not as parodies of real-life freaks but as actual flesh-and-blood people.
It is an unlikely love story, but a love story nonetheless. I can’t in good conscience urge anyone to rush out and see it, except for cinephiles who can overlook personal distaste in the interest of quality filmmaking.
B (; )