Profound, witty and insightful... are probably three of the things "Secretary" wants to be. Unfortunately, with its slight, overstretched story, and facile moral (find 'love' on your own terms), this Sundance Festival winner disappoints.
Although scripted by a woman (Erin Cressida Wilson), from a short story by Mary Gaitskill, it feels surprisingly like a male fantasy of female subjugation.
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Lee, a self-harming alumnus of a psychiatric institution, who lands a job as a secretary for an eccentric lawyer, Edward Grey - played with his customary louche vacancy by James Spader (who is to indie sex drama what John Wayne is to westerns).
Despite being involved with Peter (Jeremy Davies), Lee finds herself drawn to her hard-edged boss, and a series of sadomasochistic trysts ensue. But the boxed-off Mr Grey appears incapable of forging a lasting relationship, leaving his timid typist to force the issue.
Lee's desperate determination to get her man is presumably meant to be empowering - but it could be seen as pathetic. Is it any triumph to stop torturing yourself because you've found someone else to hurt you?
Self-harm is a complex subject, trivialised by its trite treatment here, which seems to suggest that if only masochists and sadists can hook up, everthing will be all right - and that self-harm isn't so much a problem as a legitimate sexual proclivity (not sure what mental health professionals would make of that).
"Secretary" also services an impoverished idea of love - focused exclusively around sexual expression, ignoring facets such as companionship, compassion, sharing, and having a laugh (these characteristics are perhaps suggested in Lee's relationship with Jeremy Davies' character - which comes a poor second-best to her work-based rough-housing).
Whatever your take on the picture's sexual mores, it becomes something of a drag - setting up a convincing Lynchian world, then coasting on atmosphere and mild eroticism, neither of which can save the tepid final act.
The propulsive score - from David Lynch favourite Angelo Badalamenti - is worth buying on CD, but the film it graces is neither particularly pleasant nor dreadfully painful - just numbing. Which, given the subject matter, is ironic as well as frustrating.