Freshly released from a psychiatric hospital, Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) returns home to her alcoholic father, flaky mother and maddeningly content older sister. It's not long before she's reaching under her mattress for her self-harming kit...
Lee's life is about to take a new turn, though. Landing the job as secretary to lawyer E Edward Grey (James Spader), her secret's out when Grey first spies a row of plasters marching up her leg, then catches her with blade in hand. What to do? Well, being an obsessive control freak who loves to humiliate his employees, he orders Lee to stop cutting herself and leave the punishment to him.
Secretary is not your usual US movie. Bold in premise and admirable in its refusal to chastise the characters' skewed sexuality, Steven Shainberg's first major feature slaloms between comedy, drama and eroticism. It may see the funny side of Lee having her arse spanked 'til it's raw, but it never overlooks the power dynamic or throbbing lust that bent her over the desk in the first place.
Much of the film's success rests on Gyllenhaal's slender shoulders. Lee may be submissive but she's never weak, always knowing what she wants from the relationship and demonstrating relentless fortitude to get it. Spader, on the other hand, initially seems uncomfortable inhabiting the alabaster skin of uptight Mr Grey, only settling into the role when he can stop tugging at his collar and start unzipping his fly.
To be fair, he doesn't have a great deal to work with, the script hinting at Grey's self-loathing but settling for portraying him as a Closed Book. Perplexing, given that Shainberg's feature adaptation of Mary Gaitskill's short story feels more than a little stretched.
If you want a more revealing glimpse into the intriguing world of S&M, watch Nick Broomfield's documentary Fetishes. But if you're happy to settle for a flawed but compelling debut, a movie that's blotchy but flushed with promise, this should float your boat.
The concept is stronger than the execution, but this comedy-drama about supremacy, subservience and spanking offers plenty of tickle with its slap.