Glasgow 2023

Sanctuary review – Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott play a brilliantly wicked game

The heir of a hotel empire tries to end his relationship with a dominatrix in Zachary Wigon's twisty and electrifying erotic thriller

Operating like a dark universe version of last year’s Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, here is a hotel room chamber piece that goes out of its way to be as twisty, thorny, and red-blooded whenever it can. When multi-millionaire hotel chain heir Hal (Christopher Abbott) tries to abruptly and dismissively cut off his long-standing working relationship with dominatrix Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), she channels her dejection into a series of punishing manipulations so she can get fairly compensated for her labour. The rules and dynamics of their roleplay sessions spill into the real world with alarming consequences; Sanctuary is an electric and cathartic exercise in watching a service worker squeezing their meal-ticket for all it's worth.

Who holds the most power in Sanctuary? Is it the hotel magnate who owns the luxury suite the entirety of the drama unfolds in? Hal is the one who pays for Rebecca’s services, and ultimately he has what she wants – money, and the promise of more whenever she wants it. While Rebecca’s whole relationship with Hal is predicated on her exercising control over him, it’s crucially within the framework of a safe, performed fantasy. And yet, she knows Hal’s weaknesses: not just that this high-ranking public figure is ashamed of his fetishes, but the language to make him submissive, compliant, and even paranoid.

Screenwriter Micah Bloomberg wisely opens the film with a session between Hal and Rebecca in its entirety, allowing us to observe their willingness to perform for their own/each other’s gratification while grounding the fluid nature of their baseline dynamics. Sanctuary is an erotic thriller where eroticism is a skillset, a weapon expertly wielded by a furious worker so she can't be disregarded by someone who she knows intimately.

This unstable equilibrium of power is what makes Sanctuary such a constantly compelling watch; it’s an interchangeable force that shifts between client and freelancer with a charged, sexy, tense energy that gets more acerbic and volatile with each passing minute. Director Zachary Wigon is eager to disorient his audience from within the confines of the hotel room as often as possible, a motive that’s never clearer than when Hal tears apart the suite looking for a hidden camera while Rebecca surrenders to a hypnotic, chaotic dance. If anything, Wigon and cinematographer Ludovica Isidori try to spruce up the claustrophobic location too enthusiastically, resulting in a jumpy visual style that can feel more restless than energetic.

While Abbott shines playing yet another pathetic loser, the film belongs in entirety to Margaret Qualley, who gives perhaps her finest performance – one that seduces the audience and is always connected to Rebecca’s live-wire, furious conviction. The story takes a stab at sincerity in its closing moments that may fall flat for some, but Sanctuary should be rewarded for confidently committing to its ironic-but-romantic ending. No matter how toxic they get, some people are just made for each other.

Sanctuary was screened as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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