October 7, 2002 
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Maggie Gyllenhaal
The future is Maggie
Secretary, a strange fairy tale with a kinky twist, is a highly recommended watch

Jeet Thayil

Secretary is a miracle of casting. Maggie Gyllenhaal as Miss Lee Holloway, the titular office worker, is a revelation and a delight. If there is any justice in the world, and there is, this film should make her a star. Take it from me, I have seen the future and her name is Maggie.

This strange comedy takes place in the office of E Edward Grey, a lawyer with a strange sexual dysfunction. He is unable to have a normal relationship with a woman, if we define a normal relationship as one that includes sex and conversation. James Spader as Grey is so good it is almost impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.

The film begins with an irresistible scene: Holloway in a prim office suit, handcuffed, walks around a near-Gothic office, picking up documents with her teeth and fingers and making coffee. She does all this with a beatific smile on her face.

Then the movie steps back six months. We see Holloway leaving an institution. She is given to cutting herself, though even this she does with great decorum. She cuts herself carefully making sure the cuts are not accessible to the casual eye.

Grey's is not a casual eye. He sees her pain and her shame, and her desperate attempts to live in the world. He sees into her. He tells her to stop hurting herself. But he also tells her what to wear, what to eat, how to speak. She obeys every word.

One day, when she makes one too many typing errors, Grey spanks her. She comes alive. This is one of the most affecting scenes in the movie. There is no way to watch it without feeling Holloway's emotions as they course across her face. Never mind the theories about feminism and neurosis, the scene cuts through mere talk.

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Gyllenhaal's face is a pleasure to watch. The camera often observes her privately, in a way that the other characters in the movie cannot. So the viewer gets to see her naked, without any protection. We can see the emotions pass through her and it is as intimate an experience as you can imagine.

The closest Grey and Holloway come to sex is with the secretary bent over her desk, her hands flat on the surface. There is no touching. Afterward, disgusted with himself, the lawyer sends his secretary away.

Here the movie becomes a love story. Holloway, bereft and confused, goes back to her life, such as it is. She even consents to marry a man (Jeremy Davies) who seems almost as baffled as she. At the last possible moment, wearing her wedding dress, she rushes back to the cold-hearted lawyer. He tells her to sit on a desk with her hands on the table and her feet on the floor and he goes away. She sits there for days. She becomes a news story. Friends and neighbours come to see her. Grey reads about her in the paper. Finally, convinced of her devotion, he comes to collect her.

They are married and live happily, if not ever after, just about.

Maggie Gyllenhaal Steven Shainberg directed and produced the movie, as well as writing the screenplay with Erin Cressida Wilson. It is based on a story by diva Mary Gaitskill but the movie somehow delivers more than the book. This is very likely due to Gyllenhaal and some excellent choices by Shainberg, for instance in the music.

Angelo Badalementi's score is as eerie and atmospheric as his lush soundtrack for David Lynch's Twin Peaks movies. It drives the narrative at points, and even reprises old favourites such as Leonard Cohen's I'm Your Man.

There are standout set pieces. In a montage of scenes we see Holloway on Grey's desk wearing a saddle, a smile and little else. When Grey clamps a carrot between her teeth it is clear that she is smiling through the vegetable. Gyllenhaal's smile is a luminous thing. There is no way to see it without being just a little better convinced about the essential sweetness of the world.

This strange fairly tale with a very kinky twist is the first movie I have seen in many months that left me utterly satisfied. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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