The word "originality" has been overused, especially by me, so much that it has almost been beaten to a pulp. After all, how can one really tell if something in a film hasn't been done before? Well, I can confidently say that Steven Shainberg's "Secretary" may be the most inventive, and yes, even original, film this year. I can confidently say that in all of my time of watching and reviewing films, I have never seen anything like it. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) has just been released from a mental institution due to the fact that she constantly would cut herself when tension started to build up around the household. After she is released, it is clear that the habit has not been broken, but cuts or no cuts, she needs a job. She goes to typing school and gets some of the highest grades in her class, making her perfect for the position of secretary at a nearby lawyer's office. She goes for the interview, and after seeing the previous secretary run out in tears and hearing the questions in the interview, it is apparent that the lawyer, E. Edward Grey (James Spader), is a bit of a creep. Soon enough, Lee begins to cut herself at work, and needless to say, Grey catches her in the act. He doesn't take any sort of disciplinary action towards her. Instead, it seems that he can relate. He tells Lee, very inspiringly, that she will never cut herself again. Lee is uplifted, but has no real inclination as to just why he said what he did. However, she still continues to make mistakes in her writing, and after a while, it simply drives Grey nuts. He invites her into her office and tells her to "Lean over, put your elbows on the table and read the letter outloud". She does as he asks, but in a strange turn, he spanks her every other word. She runs into the bathroom hurt and embarrassed, but interestingly enough, she loved it. I'm a bit surprised that even by this time, there has been little controversy over "Secretary". I had images in my head of feminist groups rallying for the film never to reach the screens, or possibly screams of NC-17 from everyone's favorite censors, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Thankfully though, it's gotten this far unscathed. Maybe that is because audiences at preview screenings and film festivals are realizing that although loaded with thick layers of kooky (but not that kinky) S/M, the situation is a deeply and fundamentally human one. Basically, if S/M was ever shown in a film before, it would usually be in the context of a villain torturing a hero against their will, and usually such scenes weren't in anything that wasn't some cheap exploitation film. "Secretary" is a brave endeavor, but it knows where it's going. This isn't a gimmick, S/M sequences in the film are not the least bit perverted (the same can't be said about some segments in several Larry Clark films). These scenes are essential to understanding the characters. What is so great about "Secretary" goes beyond its offering insight as to why anyone would find being tied to a pole and spanked while holding a carrot between their teeth even remotely attractive. Despite pretty morbid subject matter, "Secretary" flies off the screen with energy and wit, offering some of the funniest, most surprising dark comedy I have seen since "Fargo". Several scenes in the film have already become classics in my repertoire of movie moments that will stay with me forever, including one hilarious incident involving a worm. Even with all of this, there is no way that "Secretary" would have pulled it off without Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader. Spader is creepy and oddly pathetic; his performance is such that at one moment we are sympathetic, the next we are booing him, then we're intrigued again. Maggie Gyllenhaal is equally brilliant; she gives us complete access into the mind of Lee Holloway, and it's close to impossible not to feel for her. Also, take into account how courageous she is; you try and find me another actress her age who would be willing to do half of the things she does in the film. Spader and Gyllenhaal have such chemistry that everything clicks. Director Steven Shainberg lets us truly understand the complexities of their relationship without letting the energy lag or any of the subtle comedy fly past the audience. "Secretary" is invigorating, touching, hilarious, and often all at the same time. With too many romantic comedies trying too hard to try something new when they are in fact only going backwards, "Secretary" is a truly unique specimen.
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A young woman, recently released from a mental hospital, gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer, where their employer-employee relationship turns into a sexual, sadomasochistic one.
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April 4, 2019