A young woman, recently released from a mental hospital, gets a job as a secretary to a demanding lawyer, where their employer-employee relationship turns into a sexual, sadomasochistic one.
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A kinky romantic comedy about a secretary who gets involved in a relationship with her domineering boss based on masochistic pleasure. It’s a bizarre and unique twist on the romantic genre which has seen its fair share of clichés. The premise is strange. However, the film never goes too far into the weird finding an even balance that never feels offense.
It’s interesting to see two unlikely characters compelled to one another based on their kinky fetish for S&M. After being released from an institution for self harm, Lee Holloway sets out to rebuild her life. She starts dating an acquaintance named Peter (Davies) and finds a job as a secretary working for a rigid soft spoken but controlling boss, Mr. Grey (Spader). Despite her lack of typing skills and constant mistakes, Mr. Grey is sexually aroused by Lee, not because he finds her physically attractive although that might play a part, it’s because she is submissive.
Every command she replies with a soft spoken voice “yes sir,” “sorry sir.” After one too many mistakes, Mr. Grey tells Lee to put her hands on the table and read the letter she wrote with the mistakes, as she does, he spanks her. Lee awakens with this experience and the two begin a dominant/submissive relationship, but the longer the relationship goes for, the more Lee falls in love with Grey.
Shainberg never lets the story get out of hand. The film could have easily gone for the quick laughs, the tasteless humor and contrived emotions, but Shainberg keeps the film feeling authentic. The story is strange, but the characters are not. If anything, they are a little eccentric or quirky. They love each other. No different than anyone else, the only difference is how they express their love.
Spader has been known to play either the romantic leading man, as he did in his earlier films from the 80’s. Or the creepy sadist character like in Two Days in the Valley, another one of his excellent movies. But here he is a blend of both characters in which his masochistic nature is connected to his hopeless romantic side.
The character development for Lee works as well. As the film progresses she embraces terms her kinky side giving her the confidence and assertion she lacked at home. Now that she knows who she is and who she wants, Lee goes after Grey confessing her love. Underneath all the bizarre sex fantasies is a compassionate story about love.
The Secretary is a sadomasochism-themed romantic comedy-drama. That’s a mouthful. Shainberg creates a compelling and entertaining film with enough laughs and drama that evenly balances the film’s quirky and kinky nature. Gyllenhaal’s performance adds the human element creating a sympathetic character that you root for, and Spader is excellent as a boss whose outer hard shell only hides the inner struggle to accept his feelings for others. It’s a nice blend that brings a captivating and engaging film unlike any romantic comedy out there today.