Director: Steven Shainberg. Cast: Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie, Amy Locane, Patrick Bauchau, Oz Perkins, Jessica Tuck, Lily Knight, Mary Joy, Michael Mantell. Screenplay: Erin Cressida Wilson and Steven Shainberg (based on the short story by Mary Gaitskill).

Secretary, like no American movie since Being John Malkovich or Mulholland Drive, seems to have been made with a stunning disregard for how this stodgy country likes and expects its movies to be made. Indicators of tone and period as well as major aspects of plot and character motivation have been diligently mystified, and what seems like tawdry, subversive high concept—"female office assistant relishes the sadomasochistic demands of her lawyer boss"—flits away from any strict alignment with social satire, bawdy comedy, or psychological query in order to emerge as its own spiky, surprising entity. Like the Lynch and Jonze pictures, Secretary is not just between genres but fearlessly above them, so brazen in its renunciation of formal and stylistic expectations that the movie feels like a critique of even more conventions than it could possibly have intended. And all this without the reactive, dogmatic postures of satires like Spike Lee's Bamboozled, which pillory their chosen targets so ardently that too little energy remains for offering a coherent new alternative. Director Steven Shainberg and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson exercise a remarkably singular and rich creativity, as though it simply hasn't occurred to them that compromise or dilution is an option. At each of the hundreds of occasions when Shainberg opts for the casting, editing, decorative, or narrative choice that best suits his distinctive imaginative vision, Secretary rings another implicit rebuke, almost despite itself, to legions of artists who have forgotten how to dare.

Leading the movie in its ribald trips into shadowy places (though most of them are painted like romper rooms) is Maggie Gyllenhaal, an instant sensation in the titular role of Lee Holloway. Only a tenth of Secretary has passed and already we know these things about Lee: she has recently been released from the state institution where her parents sent her after she slashed her veins while washing dishes with Mom. Her return home happens the same day as her sister's backyard wedding, unmistakably the headliner of the two events. For Lee, keeping her head above water on such an afternoon requires a little punch, a little sockhopping with an old high-school buddy, and a furtive trip up to her bedroom to threaten her scarified flesh with the sharpened toe of a plaster ballerina. The bride and groom drive away (only to return later, since they plan to live in the poolhouse), but Lee has nowhere to drive to, even for an hour. She's stuck in a house with a boozy pop and a tightly-wrapped mom who have no idea how to nurture her except to lock all the knives in a cabinet. Only a very few personal choices are left for Lee to decide herself, such as whether to lie face up or down as she floats all day in the pool, or how long to hold a searing kettle against her skin.

These details all suggest a youth-skewing American redux of The Piano Teacher, which would be its own high-wire act, though I suspect a redundant one. But Shainberg's given us something like The Piano Teacher with yuks, which sounds like one of those joke ideas from the first scene of The Player. For reasons almost defying comprehension, though, Shainberg's recipe works like gangbusters right up until a debatable conclusion. If and when the film provokes us to laugh, the least reason is the brief, hand-tipping prologue imparting that six months after beginning her house arrest among her folks, Lee will be swinging her hips around a legal bureau with a suspension bar cuffing her wrists, a light silk blouse skiing down her breasts, and an office memo between her teeth. The path from homebody to supermasochist isn't necessarily paved with giggles, though the movie is wise enough to know that pleasure, after all, is the fuel and reward for victim games and power plays. Still, I think what's ultimately tantalizing and winning about Secretary are neither the ironic distances in its structure nor the kinky choreographies ahead for Lee. Instead, the real feat of Shainberg and his collaborators is to challenge us throughout the movie to understand our momentary feelings, to decide whether we perceive the various scenarios with a detached clarity that the characters lack (a generic rule of satire), or whether the movie is instead, and delightedly, pushing us between positions of knowing and bafflement, entertainment and discomfort, complicity and awkward self-consciousness.

It is slipperiness, then, not provocation or humor or arousal, that remains a constant in Secretary. When Lee seeks and finds a job as amanuensis to a lawyer named E. Edward Grey, she can't begin to know why he's so keen to know if she's pregnant, or why her predecessor is still packing her things on the day Lee arrives. It's anyone's guess why Edward's office outwardly looks like Tyler's derelict rambler in Fight Club, or why the inside is dressed and outfitted like an Aztec-dynasty Kinko's. We don't know these things either, nor do we ever find out. The fact that Edward is played by James Spader, the bug-eyed star of sex, lies, and videotape and Crash, is at least an early context clue that professional decorum may not carry the day; my friend Meghan, conjecturing upon the past lives of this ferrety actor, is convinced that he played the role of Sexual Evil in no small number of Medieval allegories.

But the erotic ritual into which Lee is coaxed by Edward is not one of fleshy contact, or even exposure. Nudity is minimal, and appears where you least expect it. Catastrophe is averted, or is recontextualized out of normative recognition. No one breaks out the butter, and Mickey Rourke has no cameo. Secretary is less interested in pushing the mutual, febrile attractions between these characters to their most extreme possible limits—the film is not, after all, the work of Bertolucci, Lyne, Breillat, or a Miramax contractee—than in preserving the delicate, unfixable system of displacements that floods much of the plot's erotic force into unexpected objects, sounds, and images. Edward harbors a collection of red Sharpie markers, one of which attains primacy over the others by nesting in a bronze, horn-shaped cradle, which itself looks like a torture appurtenance from Dead Ringers. The whole set is color-blocked, so that broad fields of turquoise, red, purple, and pink clash in wide angles, but then swell one at a time through the frames of various close-ups; the effect here is not only of abstract colorism but of a physical and tonal environment that seems to change substantially from shot to shot. Brooding amidst all the pop-art is an Angelo Badalamenti score that is as eerie and planetary as he contributed to Blue Velvet or Holy Smoke. How all these elements fuse into something strange and compelling, rather than merely disorganized, is a mystery. That mystery, though, is nothing if not germane to the plot, since Secretary's clarion principle of eroticism is that pleasure can spring fully formed from the most unlikely combinations of sensory assaults, submissions, deferrals, and totemized objects, even those as cryptic as earthworms, hot cocoa, and typographical errors.

On the acting front, one would be forgiven the misimpression that sometime in the summer, Hollywood passed a papul bull requiring at least one Gyllenhaal to appear in every low-budget movie we see. Nonetheless, while her brother Jake (The Good Girl, Lovely & Amazing, Moonlight Mile) accordingly totters on the thin edge of overexposure, Maggie Gyllenhaal dances and slinks through a movie that requires her to nail every acting challenge under the sun, and she still leaves us wanting more. Unbelievably supple in passing from frumpy to frisky, Gyllenhaal holds together all the heterogeneous elements of Secretary almost by example: no movie built around a face and body this expressive could fail to respond with its own chameleonisms. Visually, she could be the grown-up daughter conceived by Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz in Malkovich, and her acting chops would validate the theory. Gyllenhaal's lightning passages from stillness to jerky exertion in the opening scenes—pausing on her bed before lunging, all elbows and shoulders, for the cuticle scissors hidden under the mattress—make clear that her docile face hides real depths. But that face doesn't break a sweat spinning comic gold out of a simple, potentially cheap shot of her climbing into a dumpster, and her body reliably finds whatever smooth curves or odd angles it needs to maximize the connotations of an imposingly wide repertoire of clothes. It is a genius performance, with an off-the-charts degree of difficulty.

Spader has less to work with, which is its own challenge, since Secretary inhabits Maggie's point of view so fully that Edward risks being a cipher. That it is Edward's moralistic crisis which precipitates some desperate behavior in the fifth act is a canny screenwriting decision—forcing us to question the vectors of control in several plot events—but it's an acting bugbear, because we don't know Edward and can't see the change coming. Wisely, Spader underplays this climax, and he is only able to do so because he plants so much quivering, ticking energy into his earlier scenes, preparing us to accept that this seeming stock figure could actually pull any switcheroo at any moment.

It's a smart performance, but also something of a rescue mission, because it's hard not to read the epilogue to Secretary as in some degree a retreat, or at least an oblique version, of its foregoing textures, which the actors must struggle to recuperate. A subplot surrounding Peter, Lee's fiancé, is never the film's most compelling dimension, and the need to sand its obtrusive edges gets in the way of the Lee and Edward story. Even the culmination of that thread happens in unexpectedly domestic quarters, and while it's crucial that Secretary doesn't see Lee and Edward's behavior as totally foreign to other, more familiar visions of love, a one-shot cutaway to some bondage acrobatics from their honeymoon isn't enough to keep suburban idioms from drenching the film's conclusion. Like nearly every good film from the last two years, Secretary seems to have the wrong ending. But then again, if any recent film makes a point of subsuming destinations to the elaborate, thrilling avenues that carry us there, Secretary is it. If any local avenue can whisk you to a theater showing this film, I suggest you hop on it. A–

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Musical/Comedy): Maggie Gyllenhaal

Other Awards:
Sundance Film Festival: Special Jury Prize for Originality
Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Screenplay
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Gyllenhaal)
National Board of Review: Breakthrough Performance, Female (Gyllenhaal)

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