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By Clint Morris | September 7, 2002

If we have anything to thank Madonna for, it’s for bringing the often disastrously misunderstood topic of sadomasochism at least somewhat out in the open. There are no whips and chains in “Secretary”; director Steven Shainberg’s weirdly compelling love story. But the potent and scary theories of dominance and submission suffuse the film like the flush of a swatted backside.
Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) starts looking for a job just days after her release from a mental hospital. Sweet as sugar in a cup of coffee and shy as can be, the attractive young woman struggles to stave off her shocking penchant for self-mutilation. Though she’s never held a job before, she connects on some subterranean level with her prospective boss, attorney E. Edward Grey (James Spader). Desperate for approval and alternately terrified and thrilled by Edward’s angry outbursts at her mistakes, the young secretary and her boss circle in on a comical sadomasochistic relationship of love and lust; control and surrender.
Emotionally charged and risky, it’s a fragile relationship made even more so by Edward’s blunt and clumsy determination to not allow Miss Holloway to get too close. For as she quicky discovers, as soon as the submissive starts actively seeking out attention from her dominant partner, it shatters the illusion. The very thing that attracted Edward to his captive love in the first place disappears. Miss Holloway, then, faces a difficult decision: either to follow Edward’s orders to leave and lose him forever, or push the limits and prove her devotion to him beyond any shadow of a doubt.
Feminists will hate this movie, which is really ironic. For, although on the surface the story is a sort of “9 to 5” meets “9 1/2 Weeks” wherein an attractive and vulnerable young woman humiliates herself and surrenders herself entirely to a manipulative predatory man, one must look deeper. Otherwise, the viewer will miss the film’s broader message of empowerment that BOTH characters are getting exactly what they crave.
Shainberg does an excellent job navigating these truly treacherous waters. He immediately creates a world within a world in Edward’s warm yet spooky office. He also draws brilliant performances out of Gyllenhaal and especially Spader who, though he’s finally looking older, excels as the coldly haunted, moody and repressed Edward Grey.
“Secretary,” like the type of relationship it explores, is not for everybody. But it does what good films do best; that is to provoke us, push our buttons, make us think and maybe even entertain us in the process. It’s a film that dares you to like it and, like Miss Holloway herself, is willing to risk the spanking if you don’t.

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