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Secretary | Review


Shainberg delivers an office romance with a twist.

The relationship between the boss and boss’ secretary is known for being an exploitive one-especially when working overtime includes the hanky panky aspect of the labor conditions. Secretaries are known for their dedicated commitment- picking up the dry-cleaning, lunch or making sure that the coffee has enough sugar-but what they aren’t recognized for is willingly playing in torrid submission and domination mind games. Director Steven Shainberg brings an interesting dynamic to this employer-employee relationship and makes a statement about how some people find different ways of falling in love. Sundance’s Special Jury Prize winning film deals with one hell of a tricky subject matter-but shows it under an oddly compassionate and humorous point-of-view.

Shainberg’s Secretary is centered around two principle characters-Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal-Donnie Darko) the girl who is looking for a fresh start in life but has trouble getting there, noticeable to the viewer by the scenes that show the character with her self-inflicting wound kit. A typing course is the first step, finding a job is the second. Her new employer- Mr. Grey (James Spader-2 Days in the Valley) is visibly odd-but the first indication that something is peculiar about her future employer is the sign that hangs out at the office’s doorstep-kind of like a no-vacancy sign for hiring secretaries. People get their rocks off on all kinds of things-Japanese men like worn panties and heavy metal singers like biting off the head of bats; she gets off on eating four peas from a pod while he sends his employees running out of his office, the mental stress or the on the side fetishism mindgames might be the reason. Typing errors lead to some S&M-like exchanges between a vulnerable suicidal female in the hands of a masochistic patron-Shainberg ultimately gives us a story about the weird and weirder.

The characters are simply genius-exploring their insecurities, mental anguish, tolerance levels and sexual boundaries all for the audience to discover. What gets the highest marks in this film is the acting which is quite superb, James Spader totally looks like the obvious choice for such a role and Gyllenhaal shines in a break-out role that must have been quite the challenge. The screen relationship between the two is probably one of my favorites this year after the Heaven combo of Blanchett and Ribisi. With the exception of the ending,- which is a little off balance with the rest of the picture; the flow of the picture is subtle-with a perfect timing emphasis placed on the characters emotions. Facilitated by a mostly one location shoot, there is a symmetrical mise-en scene in all the shots. While some of the camera angles and shots emphasize the role-playing patterns between the two, the colors in the wardrobe and interior shots match the feelings of the characters-look for the prominence of the color red associated to pleasure-the blood, the red sharpie marker scribbling and the red hot spanking marks.

What is nice about her character is the ascension towards realizing her existence-like the rare flowers coming into bloom; she exfoliates a new confidence that coincides with her personal growth. You’ll end up caring for these oddballs-kudos to Shainberg who gets the tone just right in this oddly entertaining and insightful fetish noir comedy.

Rating 3 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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