Adapted from a short story in Bad Behavior, a dark collection by the reliably disturbing Mary Gaitskill, Secretary subversively pokes holes in some of our coziest assumptions. It slyly proposes that the world of supposed crazies is not all that different from the madness pervasive in California's well-appointed homes and offices. And it suggests that a couple engaged in aberrant sexual behavior is not all that different from those in 'normal' relationships. The s/m power games between heroine Lee Holloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her mysterious lawyer employer, Edward Grey (James Spader), might in less capable hands have sent viewers stumbing toward the exit. But the characters are more deeply thought through than in most 'right-thinking' films. And Spader and Gylenhaal strike just the right balance between exotic and recognizable, making Lee and Mr. Grey not only palatable, but a touching pair to root for.

Gifted director Steven Shainberg introduces his dominant conceit early on, when he shows us Lee getting released from a loony bin, only to return to a home so dysfunctional, it triggers her relapse into self-mutilation. As the inciting incident, Lee decides to apply for a secretarial job in the law office of Mr. Grey (as she calls him throughout), an ornate environment in California Baroque style that includes a candelabra-lined hall--an amusing marriage of Caligari's cabinet with an orgy locale from Eyes Wide Shut. Presiding over this dubious domain is a hilariously creepy Spader, who tends orchids in the office biosphere when not dodging the ire of a former flame or performing a compulsive ritual with his collection of red felt-tip pens.

The film charts the growing intimacy between Lee and Mr. Grey, which is initially based on his dominance and her submission--a provocation likely to make many viewers squirm. In a parody of a knight submitting to a series of tests, Lee acquiesces to her boss' most outrageous demands, literally climbing into a dumpster to retrieve a file he accidentally tossed, while he calms his jubilation by doing sit-ups (later revealing he had a copy of the file). Their complex dynamic benefits Lee in more conventional ways: On his orders, she stops cutting herself. Before long, hanky-spanky is taking precedence over legal briefs. When Lee discovers that her typos will incite a paddling, she starts misspelling on purpose. It should be said that Mr. Grey is less scary than terrified himself--of the bond he's forming with his secretary, because his own needs produce self-loathing. After he fires her in a panic, Lee pulls out all the stops to melt her reluctant lover's final resistance.

Gyllenhaal is a marvel, touchingly emerging from wounded passivity to become the heroine of her own untraditional romance, braving the world's censure. The palpable chemistry between her and Spader puts to shame canned studio love. Spader delivers a fearless, comic turn as a so-called sicko, making Mr. Grey far more appealing than a relatively normal suitor (Jeremy Davies) who competes for Lee's affections. Lensed from low or off-kilter angles, the film has an air of surreality. Yet it's actually a conventional, tightly structured narrative, rather like a skewed fairy tale. Shainberg has spun a riff on the different-strokes ethos: Hey, whatever this couple is up to, if it's ringing their chimes, the health professionals be damned. Because the film vindicates outsider sexuality, it may just find its market.

-Erica Abeel