Dir: Steven Shainberg. US. 2002. 112min.

Audacious, offbeat and darkly humorous, Steven Shainberg's Secretary, based on Mary Gaitskill's critically acclaimed novella Bad Behaviour, tells an utterly bizarre love story between an enigmatic attorney and his highly insecure secretary. Maggie Gyllenhaal renders an exquisite performance as the troubled young woman with masochistic leanings in a movie that teeters on the verge of - but never descends into - sleaze and exploitation. A follow-up to Hit Me, Shainberg's disappointing feature debut, Secretary clearly shows a talented, still-evolving director who may leave his mark on indie cinema with other quirky and idiosyncratic projects. This Sundance-premiered dramatic entry, which received the grand jury's award for originality, was picked up for theatrical distribution by Lions Gate. With the right handling, Shainberg's unabashedly quirky item should please sophisticated urban patrons of the specialised circuit seeking unconventional fare.

Gyllenhaal plays Lee Holloway, an impressionable young woman who's drawn back into compulsive behaviour when she returns home to her family after spending time in a mental ward. The first reel is a bit dull, due to viewers' familiarity with the portrait of yet another dysfunctional suburban family, this one headed by Joan (played by the underused Lesley Ann Warren), Lee's overprotective mother, and Burt (McHattie), her abusive alcoholic father.

In the manner of most youngsters in American films, Lee is alienated from her surroundings and returns to her familiar habit of self-abuse using needles and a hot kettle; her body is covered with bruises which she examines with pleasure. She's contrasted with her older, more conservative, newly-wed sister, Theresa (Locane), who's the family's admired "normal" daughter.

Trying to break the cycle of self-abuse, Lee begins to date straight arrow Peter (Davies, who first burst into the film scene with an offbeat turn in Spanking The Monkey), her nerdy but sweet-natured high-school pal. Their dates are anything but romantic, and their ordinary lovemaking, which services his needs, leave her unmoved.

Things change when Lee decides to look for gainful employment and after a series of interviews lands a job at the office of E Edward Grey (Spader), an apparently severe and humourless man. It's in these sequences that the audience begins to get a glimpse of where the peculiar tale is going to for Grey's eccentric office doesn't resemble any legal quarters seen onscreen before. Set designer Amy Danger gives Grey's office dark colours and strange art works.

It doesn't take long for the bored Lee to develop a crush on her older, rather strict boss though at first it's a one-sided relationship. The turning point occurs one day when enraged by her typing mistakes Grey calls Lee into his office, instructs her to bend over his desk and spanks her hard while she reads aloud her error-ridden letter. What appears from the outside as an outrageously terrifying and humiliating command, turns out to be liberating and even exhilarating for both employer and employee. Lee perceives it as a miracle that Grey has intuitively broken through her emotional wall and found a way to reach her heart in ways unparalleled by other men.

A dose of healthy humour is shrewdly inserted into the S&M proceedings to prevent them from escalating into soft porn or quirkiness for quirkiness' sake. Scripter Erin Cressida Wilson does a fine act in balancing the sexual acts with the far more important emotional-psychological gratification derived by Lee and her boss from their daily, highly-anticipated encounters.

With baffling curiosity and a delightful, self-deprecating approach, Lee follows her deepest instincts to a place she least expected to go, surprising both Grey and herself with her intense pursuit of unusual intimacy. The filmmakers are successful in showing how both of Lee's professional and social worlds - the bourgeoisie into which she was born and the mental institution -shift until they're entirely replaced by a new set of values and practices.

In a coda that could have borrowed its title from Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot - "Nobody's Perfect" - Secretary ends on an extremely satisfying emotional note, blurring the fine line between what's normal and abnormal and rendering the "deviant" yarn into a love story that's most suitable for release on Valentine's Day, possibly qualifying as a date movie albeit one that's off-off-Hollywood.

Since the narrative is intimate and slight as well as risky, the film's effectiveness and charm largely depend on the actors and the shifty mood. It's in these two departments that Shainberg demonstrates his progress as a director. Flirting constantly with the dangers of self-indulgence on the one hand and sensationalist exhibitionism on the other, the director manages to keep the quality of his black romantic comedy from becoming too overwhelming. Letting the loony material speak for itself, he understands that the result of over-directing is like that of over-acting, pushing the viewers away instead of drawing them in. Indeed, Secretary manages to remain amusing and truthful, even when it's boiling over the top.

Though a bit long, Secretary is impressively mounted in all technical departments by producers Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby, who have previously collaborated on such indies as the Sundance grand jury winner, Sunday, Michael Almereyda's postmodern techno-thriller, Hamlet, and the upcoming Sony Classic release, 13 Conversations About One Thing.

Prod cos: A SloughPond presentation of a Double Films production, in association with Twopoundback productions
US dist: Lions Gate
Exec prods: Michael Roban, Jamie Beardsley, PJ Posner, Joel Posner
Prods: Steven Shainberg, Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby
Scr: Erin Cressida Wilson, based on the story by Mary Gaitskill
Cinematographer: Steven Ferberg
Prod des: Amy Danger
Eds: Pam Wise, Jay Rabinowitz
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Main cast: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Leslie Anne Warren, Jeremy Davies, Amy Locane, Stephen McHattie