Sadomasochism is treated as a joke in Secretary, but the fun of the movie is that it’s also much more than a joke. For a while, you may think you’re watching a glorified ’70s porno spoof, as Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a spacey, girlish basket case (she’s a ”cutter” who brings her misery to the surface by making discreet slices in her legs), gets hired as a nine-to-five typist for Edward (James Spader), an uptight attorney whose strict, haughty imperiousness barely conceals his stuttering terror. These two are matching repressed nerds who look at one another with a trembly mixture of attraction and mutual damage. The director, Steven Shainberg, taking off from Mary Gaitskill’s 1989 short story, presents the pair’s relationship as such a stylized, pre-PC exaggeration of the boss/secretary, master/slave power dynamic that they seem less like professionals than like children playacting at adult jobs.
It’s part of ”Secretary”’s sly design to recognize that when it comes to sex, all of us, at times, feel like children. Whenever Lee makes a mistake, Edward forces her to do something degrading (early on, she dives into a Dumpster to fetch some lost papers), and it doesn’t take either of them long to figure out that the high drama of punishment turns both of them on. Yet that’s only the first act.
Once they’ve moved on to ritual spanking, the real comic-erotic excitement of ”Secretary” comes from watching two lost souls who get hot by sharing each other’s pain grapple with what it is that they have together. Is it mutual exploitation? Or could it possibly be love? The answer can be found on the face of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who, like a saucier Gwyneth Paltrow, plays Lee as a wallflower discovering her inner wildflower. There’s a word for an actress who can go from nervous to winsome to raunchy to romantic in a heartbeat and get you to adore her the whole time. The word is ”star.”