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[whitespace] 'Secretary'
Secretary's Week: Maggie Gyllenhaal gets both tender and tough love from boss James Spader in kicky 'Secretary.'

Spanks for the Memories

A secretary takes more than dictation in Steven Shainberg's S&M sex farce

By Richard von Busack

IF A MAN can be called "crazy like a fox," maybe there's such a thing as a woman "innocent like a vixen." Maggie Gyllenhaal plays just such an innocent/devious girl in Steven Shainberg's sweet but overlong Secretary.

Gyllenhaal's Lee is a numbed suburban girl, depressed at the absence of her dad and her own unconquerable loneliness. She cuts herself to raise up some feeling. At the prodding of her mother (Lesley Ann Downs), Lee lands a job as a secretary for an eccentric lawyer named Mr. Grey (James Spader). At her new job, she's a well-trained bondage slave. She does the phones and the correspondence trussed up like a turkey.

Lee's problem is that she can't crack her boss's impenetrable coldness. Yet we realize that the covert Grey is fascinated; he's constantly spying on his dutiful secretary. The odd girl's yearning is interrupted by the demands of her family, who have her under close watch. Meanwhile, she's courted by a geeky boy next door (Jeremy Davies) who doesn't know enough to give a lady a spanking even if she directly asks him for it.

The film, advertised with the image of a woman's butt and the caption "Assume the position," makes it clear to even the dumbest viewer that this is an S&M sex comedy. We never really fear that something bad will happen to Lee. Spader is very funny, fussing over his orchids and tending his tropical fish. He's a marquis in his own mind. One clever bit has him capturing and releasing the mice infesting his office. He uses a live trap; he wouldn't hurt a mouse.

Shainberg's clever adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's story improves on his original short-film version. He has expanded the tale and changed the ending. The film is watchable for the stars--rather than for the tidy, flat direction.

Gaitskill's readers might be curious to see how her grim short story got turned into a farce. Gaitskill is not a humorous writer; she's about as whimsical as Joyce Carol Oates. Unlike this peculiar film romance, her story is about the kind of encounter between a man and a woman for which there is no real word. You'd need a term somewhere between "tryst" and "assault." "Something hideous" is the way the narrator describes what happened to her.

Economic punishment shades the story, which is set in Detroit's suburbs in the 1970s. The lack of jobs reflects the helplessness of the young bottom-to-be, named Debby. (Lee in the movie comes from a much more affluent background; characters in modern movies are almost always richer than they are in the books they come from.) When her boss spanks her the first time , Debby thinks, "The word 'humiliation' came into my mind with such force that it effectively blocked out all other words. Further, I felt that the concept it stood for had actually been a major force in my life for quite a while."

As Gaitskill told interviewer Alexander Laurence in 1994, "A lot of my characters are actually too incompetent to be properly called S&M practitioners." Her recent short-story collection Because They Wanted To includes an excellent, sympathetic account of the lesbian S&M scene in San Francisco in the 1990s. Her narrator, however, never really gets into the party; she observes it all, detached. But the events--the women taking control of their own desires--seem to have a liberating effect. One of the stories retells the events in "Secretary." In this process, the narrator is getting over them, forgiving herself for being aroused by having been forced to "assume the position."

Gaitskill's work is not erotica, despite the erotic situations. A San Francisco filmmaker once used solvents to carefully erase the image of a woman from a section of a vintage porn film, leaving the studs thrusting and moaning over a glowing, woman-shaped blank. Gaitskill's stories are something like this altered porn film. What interests her isn't sex per se, but the roaring needs and emptiness people try to fill with sex--as well as the "dirt" (her word) inside the hearts of men and women that sex stirs up.

Secretary the movie doesn't even get you dusty. Gyllenhaal is droll and pretty, but her performance suffers in comparison to the way Isabelle Huppert pulled the heartstrings in The Piano Teacher as a woman dying to be used and misused. Gyllenhaal is fun when she's a wicked brat, but she can't do virgins very well. When the sexually repressed Lee gets nude, she reveals the exquisitely muscled, perfectly tweezed body of a Hollywood starlet.

The movie is a nouveau gothic--erotica in which a girl puts up with a richer, more powerful man's wrath and heals his guilt. It's as if Rochester had paddled Jane Eyre. The moral is that S&M fans are just your neighbors with an unusual kind of hobby. The film's sweet, but it changes what once was a male/female cold war into a disturbing but harmless power exchange.

Secretary (R; 104 min.), directed by Steven Shainberg, written by Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a story by Mary Gaitskill, photographed by Steven Fierberg and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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