3 out of 5 stars
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Shainberg's film is one of those unsettling yet entertaining black comedies where you're not sure if you should laugh or be afraid. Very afraid. Especially after an opening tracking shot that's rather disturbing ... in a funny sort of way. Six months earlier we meet Lee (Gyllenhaal), an unambitious young woman with serious psychological problems. She scars herself incessantly, presumably to feel something, anything, in her strained, scarred family, where her sister (Locane) has just got married and her bubbly mother (Warren) just won't stop smiling for no reason at all, and her father (McHattie) has just gone back to rehab again. She decides on a career as a secretary, does the training and gets a job for a lawyer, Edward (Spader), who turns out to be a complete control freak. But Lee likes that about him. And when he disciplines her in an unorthodox way after she leaves a typo on a letter, she likes him even more.

Shainberg is not making fun of dominant-submissive behaviour at all. Rather, he's merely stating that different people need different kinds of love, and sometimes the most bizarre activity can actually be healthier than the semblance of normalcy we aspire to. Or that's what I got at least! The film itself is absolutely amazing to look at, densely designed in a kind of Jeunet & Caro meets Frankenstein way. Vivid colours and lighting, busy and surreal sets, eerie Angelo Badalamenti music--it all combines to both unsettle us and keep us helplessly gripped. There's a lot of laugh-out-loud humour along the way, usually at some absurd throwaway gag, and it gets quite frightening as well. It's a kind of freeform film, with not much pacing or plot, a few mind-boggling fantasy sequences and a bit too much freakiness to ever let us fall for the characters emotionally. But Spader and Gyllenhaal are perfect in the roles--creepy and endearing, deeply disturbed yet really just craving love. They certainly deserve each other!

cert 18 adult themes and situations, violence, nudity language 28.Oct.02 lff

dir Steven Shainberg
scr Erin Cressida Wilson
with Maggie Gyllenhaal, James Spader, Jeremy Davies, Lesley Ann Warren, Stephen McHattie, Patrick Bauchau, Jessica Tuck, Amy Locane, Oz Perkins, Mary Joy, Michael Mantell, Lily Knight
release US 20.Sep.02; UK 16.May.03
02/US 1h44

Your coffee sir. Edward likes everything just so (Spader and Gyllenhaal)...

Jury Prize: Sundance 2002

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send your review to Shadows... assume the position "This is the best film I have ever seen in the UK during the past two years. Unusual plot, special love and the fantastic performance of Maggie Gyllenhaal as leading lady make this film so memorable and impressive to me that I have seen this film four times! Not to mention James Spader's acting skills. I am sure that Maggie will be the brightest star in Hollywood." --Aijun Liu, UK 4.Jun.03

"I read the previous review, and I could not believe that anyone would return to the scene of the crime (watch 4 screenings)! This movie is the most bizarre film I have ever seen. It is a nigtmare's worst dream! I sat through the whole movie hoping that it was a comedy, and that the punch line was coming up next. Sorry, I was wrong. Secretary, indeed!" --Beatrice Miller, North Brunswick 7.Aug.03

2002 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall