They say that everything is about sex except sex, which is about power. By the transitive property, that does everything about power. Even our closest and most loving relationships are ultimately dictated by delicate balances of power. When a person intends to upset the balance, perhaps in a setting where it is unclear who has more power over the other, he can expect a reckoning. Sanctuary understands this principle and takes it to the extreme in one of the hottest and most spectacular movies of the year.
Hal (Christopher Abbott) thinks he has a very clear relationship with Rebecca (Margaret Qualley): she acts out written sexual fantasies in his apartment as a dominatrix, and he pays her for it. During the film’s first scene, a vaguely defined three-act prelude, Rebecca appears in Hal’s hotel suite as an employee investigating Hal for his new position as CEO of Hal’s father’s luxury hotel empire. the. Slowly but surely, it reveals itself as an erotic role-playing game. Before you know it, Hal is cleaning the bathroom on his knees as Rebecca scolds him, sprawling on a chair by the door.
This opening scene is a wryly amusing role reversal that gives us what the synopsis of the movie promises, but it’s also the only moment where the roles seem pretty clear. Play with the expectations of the audience, but only enough to provide a foundation for what is to come. Over the course of the film’s 96-minute run, director Zachary Wigon and writer Micah Bloomberg blur fantasy and reality so vividly that you’re never sure what’s real, what’s not real, or even what is, period.
Take the next moment in the movie, where Rebecca removes her blonde wig and proceeds to share a room service dinner with her client. Certainly not the dynamism one expects from a professional business relationship. Hal even gives her an expensive watch as a thank you gift. There is a camaraderie here, one that is sadly about to change. Look, that watch isn’t just a thank you gift. It’s a farewell glass.
Hal’s script was based in part on the truth: he it is on the verge of inheriting his father’s company and, hoping to avoid a possible scandal, he decides to end his relationship with Rebecca. Seeing her stripped of her powers over Hal, powers that never existed outside of her fantasies, is heartbreaking. However, as she walks away from her in defeat, something changes. She returns, insisting that her relationship is more valuable than Hal realizes, not only to her (she needs the money, after all) but to him as well. In fact, Hal wouldn’t be where he is today without her.
If Rebecca is going to be left in the dust, she won’t settle for jokes. “I want what I’m worth, relative to what you have.” Rebecca already excelled at wielding power over Hal, but now she has to do it without a script. Unsurprisingly, she also excels at it. What follows is a masterful turn by Qualley that caught her eye early on but, in this moment, amounts to something that defines her career.
It’s a performance that demands control over every moment, sensual and sadistic in equal measure. Even when it looks like he’s letting loose, you can feel Qualley’s precision in every pick. He meshes well with Christopher Abbott, who can’t afford to be anything but deeply vulnerable. Hal struggles to keep up with Rebecca’s power plays and Abbott deftly plays this uphill battle, but make no mistake: this is Margaret Qualley’s movie.
The two engage in a thrilling battle of wits and cunning, a near-one-place, two-handed duel that defies both restraints. Loosely based on a one-act play, Bloomberg’s script is constantly evolving, full of twists that are careful to reveal themselves. It’s an experience that ranges from explosive to romantic to heartbreakingly honest, and it never switches off. Ludovica Isidori’s cinematography shoots a single hotel suite as a mini-mansion, constantly changing lighting and composition to reflect changing roles.
Unlike other festival favorites who have been criticized for failing to make it from stage to screen, Sanctuary it’s superbly cinematic in every way. Even in scenes that take place in an elevator (I said narrowly unique location), Zachary Wigon finds ways to convey every psychological detail in a way that is artistically compelling but also wildly entertaining. Culminating in a hilarious final scene that wraps the film in an elegant bow without sacrificing its grandeur, Sanctuary it’s flawless from start to finish and should be on everyone’s radar coming out of festival season.
Sanctuary had its world premiere in the special presentations section of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
Director: Zachary Wigon
Writer: Micah Bloomberg
Execution time: 96 minutes