Secretary (2002)

(On DVD, January 2011) In certain circles, Secretary is often held up as a mainstream-friendly introduction to the dominant/submissive mindset –not your usual fare for romantic comedies, and certainly its most enjoyable trait.  Whatever shortcomings the film may have, at least it’s willing to celebrate its kinkiness: The main characters don’t play by the usual rules, and neither does Writer/Director Steven Shainberg: From the first few moments, Secretary delves deep into kink and makes it feel like a perfectly understandable lifestyle.  As a depressive young woman (Maggie Gylenhall) falls under the spell of her unusual boss (James Spader, patron saint of proud deviants), the film becomes both stranger and more self-assured.  Despite the added spice of dominance and submission, the core of the film is a solid romance between two characters whose psychological issues complement well.  It’s fun, charming, often cute despite some unpleasant material and absolutely non-threatening.  There are a few problems with the third act, which seems to falter and lose control by going for an overly-public absurdist resolution.  Still, it manages a tricky balance for a difficult subject and it ends on a happy note that pleasantly wraps up everything.  Gyllenhall is mesmerizing in the lead role –nearly ten years later, this is still her career-best performance.  Secretary may not be a particularly great film, but it’s certainly striking, unexpected and confident in the ways it dares celebrate its lack of social convention.  No wonder many people still think of it fondly.

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