Photo by Bruce Birmelin

ON THE RARE OCCASIONS WHEN American films take sex seriously, the result is usually sleep-inducing pseudo-erotica (Henry & June) or a grim lecture about the dangers of straying from home and hearth (last spring's Unfaithful). Loosely adapted from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, Secretary has a premise that could have been made to fit either category — it's a love story about sadomasochism — and sounds almost guaranteed to result in something pretentious or stupid. But if you look past its indulgence in the aggressive quirkiness that gives Sundance movies a bad name in some quarters, Secretary (which picked up a Special Jury Prize in Park City in January) offers something few films even attempt: an honest depiction of the role sex plays in everyday life as a source of empowerment and healing.

Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, a young woman who, since childhood, has used various forms of self-mutilation to cope with the pain of growing up with an alcoholic dad (Stephen McHattie) and a Stepford mom (Lesley Ann Warren) in a Florida suburb that looks like a leftover set from Edward Scissorhands. When she's caught in the act, Lee's parents mistake her cutting for a suicide attempt and she gets packed off to a mental institution. Emerging on the day of her sister's wedding — which predictably compounds her self-esteem issues — she goes back to her old ways while taking community-college typing classes and seeking pink-collar employment. Eventually, her job hunt takes her to the office of an attorney named E. Edward Grey (James Spader), whose shingle supports the weight of a “Secretary Wanted” sign massive and permanent enough to suggest that he goes through receptionists the way Bluebeard did wives.

Lee may sport a Little Purple Riding Hood rain poncho as she tentatively makes her way through Edward's cavernous office, but director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson otherwise soft-pedal the fairy-tale parallels to the developing relationship between Lee and her new boss. Edward assigns Lee one humiliating task after another (making her root through a dumpster for misplaced files he doesn't really need, etc.) and berates her with the ferocity of a drill instructor whenever she makes a typing error. Such relentless abuse magnifies Lee's curiosity about Edward into a full-blown crush and drives her to start making mistakes on purpose as the pair head deeper into master-slave territory.

It's not hard to guess how all this winds up, but it's the journey, not the destination, that makes Secretary interesting. Edward's curiosity about Lee mounts when he discovers her self-mutilation jones, and after he shocks her by intuiting what drives it (a desire to externalize internal pain), he tells her to stop in a tone that's equal parts stern command and Jedi mind trick. His authority gets the job done, but beneath it lies a tenderness surpassing anything offered by her meek J.C. Penney­clerk boyfriend, Peter (Jeremy Davies, equipped with a gruesome mullet and Fu Manchu mustache that can't begin to energize his tired sensitive-guy routine). Like Lee's mother, Peter is an annoying Indiewood stereotype, and both seem like major weaknesses at first. Rather than subtracting from the film's merits, however, the clichéd characters that surround Lee help us understand why she's drawn to Edward: He's the only person in her world with any mystery about him, and the only one remotely capable of responding to her compulsive behavior with sympathy. The clinical depictions of her cutting present the habit as a form of drug addiction — Lee keeps a neatly organized sewing kit full of blades and pins that she fetishizes the way stoners do bongs and papers — and Edward's sensitivity to what drives her helps provide Lee with the confidence to escape both her need to self-medicate and the overattentive grasp of her mother.

SECRETARY'S TREATMENT OF FEmale sexuality is as matter-of-fact as its handling of self-mutilation, and the key to both is Gyllenhaal's remarkable performance. Hitherto seen only in supporting parts (among them a scene-stealing turn as the acerbic sister of real-life brother Jake in Donnie Darko), she approaches her first leading role with a self-consciousness that makes the movie all the more believable. She's asked to do a lot of things that would make other rising stars recoil — a number of masturbation scenes, in addition to some demanding nudity — and is always completely relaxed and in character. The organic expressiveness of her face would have made her a superstar in the silent era. With it, she imbues Lee with a complexity often missing from the script, responding to Edward's demands with a believable combination of fear, confusion and subdued excitement. The depth of Gyllenhaal's characterization prevents Lee from ever becoming a mere fantasy object, and her natural contradictions (which stretch rules to which most screenwriters rigidly adhere) make her one of the most fully realized female characters in recent memory.

As Lee and Edward's relationship becomes more explicitly sexual, the film veers further and further away from “erotic” conventions. The inevitable couplings are clinical and starkly lit, hinting that the real love story is between Lee and herself: When Edward caresses her self-inflicted scars, she finds herself feeling beautiful for the first time. Edward, too, comes to terms with himself, burying his own masochistic streak when Lee offers him validation. Alas, Spader's iffy performance (vacant enough to suggest that he may have been cast merely for the comfort with explicit sex scenes he displayed in Crash, White Palace and other films) makes his journey less compelling. Still, it culminates in a moment that verges on breathtaking. “We can't do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” gasps Edward, possessed by guilt as he looks for a way to bail on the ethically challenging relationship. “Why not?” replies Lee with a playful smile that makes the line almost as giddy and liberating as Joe E. Brown's immortal response to Jack Lemmon at the end of Some Like It Hot.

Like many features derived from short stories, Secretary is less an adaptation of its source than a new narrative extrapolated from it. In the Gaitskill story, the narrator stops working for the lawyer after a sticky encounter that's the basis of one of the film's most memorable scenes, then passes up an opportunity to scuttle his bid for public office by refusing to spill the beans to a reporter who wants to bring him down. The moral — basically, that it's okay for women to enjoy getting spanked — is perfectly valid if hardly groundbreaking. Same goes for that of the film version, which argues that there's someone for everybody and that great sex with someone you love can be better than therapy. But because Shainberg and Wilson refuse to mock Lee and Edward's offbeat desires and don't shy away from presenting sex as the messy, sometimes scary enterprise we're all familiar with, the message rings true, and Gaitskill's point gets reinforced in the bargain. Secretary is very much a fantasy — even more so than in the '80s when Gaitskill published her story, now that sexual-harassment suits are an established part of the landscape — but its candor and generosity make it one that many will be eager to believe in.

SECRETARY | Directed by STEVEN SHAINBERG | Screenplay by ERIN CRESSIDA WILSON based on the story by MARY GAITSKILL Produced by SHAINBERG, ANDREW FIERBERG and AMY HOBBY | Released by Lions Gate Films | At Laemmle's Sunset 5, Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex

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