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  Steven Shainberg  
  James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal  
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  The Priestess  

I have a bit of an obsession with words. Did you know that the word secretary comes from the word secret? See, Medieval Latin emphasized the confidentiality of such a clerical position, something we sometimes lose sight of today. Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is an aspiring secretary with her own secrets. The DVD box will tell you that sheís got ďa few strikes against herĒ in achieving her career goals. I suppose you could say that. After all, she was just released from a mental hospital and she has a terrible habit of cutting herself. But other than that, Iíd say sheís more than qualified for the position... if the position is on her knees, that is.

Mr. E. Edward Grey, Esq. (James Spader) has his own share of problems. Poor guy canít seem to keep a secretary. It could be that he insists his secretary use an old-fashioned typewriter. Or perhaps itís because he is very critical of careless typos. Most likely, it has something to do with the verbal abuse and corporal punishment he doles out for those mistakes. The funny thing is, Ms. Holloway actually appreciates his brand of constructive criticism, and she enjoys a good spanking now and again ... so much so that her typing just keeps getting worse!

Maggie Gyllenhaal has received many accolades for her performance in this film and rightfully so. Sheís an extremely talented actress, and her character is very accessible despite all of her quirks. I think women in particular, but not exclusively, will be able to relate to her and perhaps give themselves over to a guilty pleasure that feminism has long denied them: the luxury of being submissive. However, I think that James Spader has been somewhat overlooked. He was perfectly cast in the role of Mr. Grey, and he plays it so very well. Iíve always had a love-hate thing for Spader. He plays the smug asshole so convincingly, and I suppose that makes him a very good character actor, if not a bit overly typecast. I recall fondly how I detested his character in Less Than Zero. His character in this film has the same kind of chilly cruelty, but he also has a good bit of the steaminess and tenderness we saw in White Palace. Mr. Grey is beyond complicated, ever cool and composed, but just under the surface, about to boil over. Without uttering a word, Spader can speak volumes. His performance in this film is absolutely superb!

Believe it or not, Secretary is a (darkly) funny love story. In fact, despite its bondage and discipline theme -- and I deliberately make a distinction here from S&M because a lot of reviewers donít understand the difference and I maintain the film doesnít go that far -- itís one of the best love stories Iíve seen in a long time. However, itís not a chick flick the likes of which feature Jennifer Anniston or Gwynneth Paltrow. <yawn> It is not your typical boy-meets-girl love story. Itís more unconventional than Harold and Maude and more risquť than 9 Ĺ Weeks. The best part is that itís very cerebral. Just as the best horror films arenít necessarily the goriest ones, the most libidinous movies donít have to be chock full of gratuitous nudity. In fact, I would assert that this film may be sexier to women than to men, because itís less about getting it on than about titillation. Itís suspenseful in the way that relationships are sometimes suspenseful.

Some critics have said that the film is too slow at times, but I find that director Steven Shainberg employs hesitation and trepidation very artfully. Considering this is only his second feature film -- his first was Hit Me, 1998, with William H. Macy -- I think heís done an outstanding job of taking on a very daring subject matter and presenting it fairly and in a dignified manner. In the final analysis, Secretary is a love story because two very damaged people fall in love and discover that their imperfections fit each other perfectly. Itís really a very beautiful and intelligent story. Perhaps thatís why it won at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Itís definitely a must-seeÖ if you think you can handle it.

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