Long ago, back when Mrs. Guy Ritchie was known as Madonna and slithering about in various states of indiscretion with the likes of Vanilla Ice, sadomasochism was all the rage. In film after film, in one fashion magazine after another, someone in a dog collar could be seen valiantly trying to stir the air with menace. For the most part, this predatory chic was essentially about poses--gestures of defiance rather than genuine subversion--as well as the timeless allure of leather and photographer Helmut Newton. On screen or in magazines, the only real fetishism anyone expressed was for commodities.

In the new movie "Secretary," there's a fleeting image of two lovers, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, re-creating one of Newton's most scandalous images, that of a beautiful young woman wearing a riding saddle. In the original photograph, the sleekly made-up model is wearing jodhpurs, boots and precious little else underneath the saddle, along with a smile as serenely private and mysterious as that of the Mona Lisa. In "Secretary," Gyllenhaal's Lee Holloway is fully dressed, but instead of wrapping her mouth around a secret, she's clamped down on a big, leafy carrot. If not for the unwieldy vegetable she looks as if she'd be giggling (she's having fun, not plumbing the abyss).

Loosely based on a short story by literary naughty girl Mary Gaitskill (from her fiction collection "Bad Behavior"), "Secretary" is a gently bent old-fashioned romance about two people who are so ideally suited for each other that they seemed doomed to never get it together. When we first meet Lee she's being released from an institution following a nervous breakdown. Now in her early 20s, she has the baby-doll voice of a woman who can't reconcile her adult body with the tiny person she feels herself to be; it's no wonder she's been hacking away at her flesh since she hit adolescence.

That's not healthy, but the best and smartest move director Steven Shainberg makes, beyond his superb casting, is refusing to make a huge deal out of Lee's pathology. Cutting herself is a mournful, solitary ritual for Lee, not a psychological carnival act. It's gross and it's disturbing, at times quietly harrowing, but what Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson understand is that the ritual belongs to Lee (it's the only thing that does). Mucking about in Lee's history and all the possible reasons she cuts herself won't do her or the story any good. It isn't this woman's stigmata that need tending to--it's the rest of her.

This sounds heavier than it plays. For all the dolorous trim, "Secretary" is a genial romance that maintains a surprisingly buoyant tone throughout, notwithstanding some of the writers' sporadic dips into pop Freudianism. Lee's parents fight, her dad drinks and sis is bodacious and blond, but happily we don't spend much time with them. The relationship that matters, that gives the film its spark, its cheeky humor and its reason for being, is the one Lee develops with her new boss, Mr. Grey (Spader), an obsessive-compulsive lawyer with a fanatical loathing of typing errors and a predilection for sexual dominance. It's a match made in dysfunctional heaven.

Inside Mr. Grey's strangely appointed warren of offices, amid the sort of cross-cultural clutter that the Victorians favored--Oriental hangings, swirling William Morris--style wall coverings, along with the odd classical flourish--Lee discovers herself. One day, after berating her for making typing errors (he doesn't like computers), Mr. Grey surprises Lee with a spanking; she surprises herself still more by not protesting. And so a love story not like every other begins.

In this hothouse atmosphere, Lee blossoms like one of Mr. Grey's orchids. She begins to walk more confidently, to dress better; her hair grows glossier, her complexion rosier. For her, love doesn't just hurt--it stings, even through sensible A-line skirts.

Although you wouldn't know it to judge by one of its posters, "Secretary" is pretty tame, more sweet than salacious. You can understand the distributor wanting to squeeze as much business out of it as possible, but they've done the filmmakers and actors a disservice by sleazing up the marketing. In the poster in question, a woman is shown facing away from the camera, bent over, flaunting her posterior, stilettos and flexibility. The image is misleading not only because the woman is wearing a short dress and the sort of heels they sell on Hollywood Boulevard (rather than Lee's modest attire), but because her head is totally obscured. "Secretary" is all about faces, particularly Gyllenhaal's, in whose face you can read a veritable "Kama Sutra" of expressionism.

As Mr. Grey, Spader is very fine as a spookier, more twitchy version of the shuttered character he played in Steven Soderbergh's "sex, lies and videotape" (he's like a junior Christopher Walken). But it's Gyllenhaal who makes "Secretary" work, saving it from titillation and sordidness as she turns a dormouse into a revelation. There's relatively little nudity in the film, yet as the submissive partner, it's Gyllenhaal who has to drop her drawers and strip herself emotionally bare. She makes the character more complex than it's written, including in Gaitskill's story, fiercely holding onto Lee's dignity even when Mr. Grey's imagination (or Lee's) carries her into some far-out places (and appliances).

What's remarkable about the performance is how quickly Gyllenhaal liberates Lee from the restrictive designation of "sick." Even before she meets Mr. Grey, you can see the actor coaxing a real person from what could have easily been a cardboard creation. Soon before Lee applies for the position of secretary, she picks up the help-wanted section of a newspaper. From the way her eyes melt and her features brighten, you know that it isn't any individual job that she's interested in as much as the possibilities inherent in the words "help wanted." Like a lot of people who need saving, she's got something of a Florence Nightingale complex. She may be hurting, but warms to the idea that she could help someone else.

In the original story, the secretary is a sullen creature who doesn't get much out of her time with the lawyer beyond a few whacks and paychecks. There isn't much to it in the sense that there's no lurking metaphor--something about men and women and power and sex--and the same is pretty much true of the film. Shainberg and Wilson have greatly enlarged Gaitskill's story by giving the characters richer inner lives and in doing so have expanded our sense of why Lee and Mr. Grey do what they do. They're more sentimental about the secretary--one of Lee's favorite cutting implements is the sharpened ceramic foot of a ballerina figurine--but in their hands she also seems more like a human being.

That may not seem like a big deal but it is, especially when it comes to movies and sex. What's so appealing about "Secretary" is how, well, normal these people are. There may not be anything loudly political about the film, but its makers clearly share that old-fashioned American belief that whatever consenting adults do behind closed doors is their business. The irony is that although Shainberg and Wilson take their characters very seriously, they're far less sacrosanct when it comes to the characters' kinks. That's because unlike Madonna and Vanilla Ice, they know that the kinks, the poses and the funny accouterments are finally beside the point. After all, it isn't how you find each other--it's that you do.

MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality, some nudity, depiction of behavioral disorders and language. Times guidelines: light bondage, full-frontal female nudity and adult language. Images of the woman cutting herself may be difficult for the squeamish.

'Secretary'
James Spader...Mr. Grey
Maggie Gyllenhaal...Lee Holloway
Jeremy Davies...Peter
Lesley Ann Warren...Joan Holloway
Stephen McHattie...Burt Holloway

The Slough Pond Company presents a Double A Films Production, in association with TwoPoundBag Productions, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Steven Shainberg. Screenplay Erin Cressida Wilson, from the short story by Mary Gaitskill. Story adapted by Steven Shainberg and Erin Cressida Wilson. Producers Steven Shainberg, Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby. Cinematography Steven Fierberg. Production designer Amy Danger. Editor Pam Wise. Costume designer Marjorie Bowers. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Art director Nick Ralbovsky. Set decorators Michael Baker, Michael Murray. Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes.

In limited release.