Sex, love and power are the usual stuff of Hollywood but Steven Shainberg’s second feature, Secretary, is definitely anything but usual and certainly not Hollywood. Shainberg’s work is not well known outside the film festival circuit. He made his feature debut in 1998 with Hit Me, an adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel, now released on DVD. He is better known as a director of commercials and music videos than films.
Shainberg read Secretary, a short story from Mary Gaitskill’s book Bad Behavior, in the early 90s and was later inspired by Jane Campion’s Sweetie, Mike Leigh’s Naked and his all-time favourite film, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, to turn it into a film. Those of you who are familiar with these films and their themes will realise all of them have a very black take on love, sex and power. Shainberg asked Erin Cressida Wilson to adapt the script. Wilson is a playwright but also writes a sex column for Razor. To this mix he adds an eerie score written by veteran composer, Angelo Badalamenti, who also scored Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet.
The result is a small film which is provocative, kinky and definitely original. Secretary won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2002 and received rave reviews, especially from younger audiences. Maggie Gyllenhaal (Adaptation) is restrained and wonderful in the role of the protagonist seeking sex and maybe love. James Spader, the king of indie sex romps who won Best Actor at Cannes for Sex, Lies And Videotape, is more than suited to the task and he and Gyllenhaal shine on the screen in what is essentially a two-hander. Shainberg wants to explore a relationship between two consenting adults that takes love out of the sex equation. As we all know, this is not Hollywood’s approach, more the fare of some European films and soft porn. SecretaryÂ does manage to stay erotic without crossing the gratuitous line for most of the film, although Shainberg loses it completely at the end.
Secretary is oddly quirky, a black comedy that has you laughing but also cringing during what at times really is a disturbing take on love, pain and being accepted. New light will be shed for some on S and M and the film essentially remains upbeat and an empowering experience, especially for women as Maggie definitely shows a girl how to get what she wants. This film will definitely not appeal to everyone and is not exactly lightweight despite the comedy. It has a lot in common with Sweetie, although it is not as accomplished. If you enjoyed Jane Campion’s little gem you may just be drawn in by SecretaryÂ as well.