If sex is a mystery, what about love? That's positively alien to the logical mind. What makes a girl humiliate herself before a man who likes to smack her bottom?

He says, "Are you shy? I'm shy." His voice is so quiet, it caresses her.

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Lee says, "You're not shy. You're a lawyer." She speaks hurriedly, like someone who is afraid of being interrupted.

He says, "You're closed tight. A wall. Do you ever loosen up?"

She doesn't cry. She listens. She is used to being analysed, criticised, worried over. She is used to being ignored. She has had what she calls "a little nervous breakdown," but is better now.

He circles her typing errors with a red pen and chastises her verbally.

"Miss Holloway, come into the library, immediately." His voice is stern now. She feels it lash her. She understands pain. She has been abusing her body since the seventh grade. She has plasters down her inner thighs, scars over her chest and belly. Pain gives her power. She cannot explain it, even to him. Is this what they mean by the power of love?

Steven Shainberg's film is essentially a two hander. There are others, such as Lesley Ann Warren, as Lee's vacuous mother, and Jeremy Davies, as her neurotic boyfriend, but they inhabit the outer world, a place called Florida. The inner world has another name. It's called the office, where Mr Grey (James Spader) and Lee (Maggie Gyllenhaal) work.

After coming out of the institution, she couldn't stay at home, surrounded by dysfunction. She had to find a job. She learnt typing skills and answered Mr Grey's advertisement for a secretary. "You'll be bored to death," he tells her. "I want to be bored," she says. "It's very dull work," he warns. "I like dull work," she says.

He needs to control, in order to avoid emotional attachment. She discovers two words that sound like "dominant submissive," which set her free. In the inner world, there is only her and him. Anything is possible.

This is called a black comedy, but it's not funny ha-ha. Spader's performance has an hypnotic quality and Gyllenhaal grows wings. As a double act, they are supreme.

For a film that explores places Hollywood dare not go, it is erotic without being gratuitous. Although the ending feels greased, the rest dances on nails.

Reviewed on: 15 May 2003
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An unhappy young woman discovers purpose and passion when her boss dishes out spanking sessions.
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Jennie Kermode ****

Director: Steven Shainberg

Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson, based on a story by Mary Gaitskill

Starring: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie, Patrick Bauchau, Jessica Tuck

Year: 2002

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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