The remaining film year isn’t likely to bring an action movie or thriller with turns of plot as exhilarating as those that fill director Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary, a two-character, one location battle of wits between a sex worker and her longtime client. Already, we’ve given away a plot point, but Wigon and screenwriter Micah Bloomberg make it clear right off that there’s something performative in the way Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) strides into the small but luxurious Denver hotel suite of late 30s-ish Hal (Christopher Abbott).
Hal’s hotelier father has just died and he’s about to take over as CEO, a role for which he may lack the killer instinct. Rebecca is here with a legal questionnaire, but her questions turn weirdly personal even as Hal seems to be playing a game of his own in his replies. Who’s lying? They both are, or rather, they’re following a script Hal wrote out in advance. He always writes a script for a visit from Rebecca, a dominatrix specializing in humiliation (not intercourse).
The lawyer-client scenario will ultimately lead to Rebecca degrading Hal, quite literally down to his knees, which will excite him sexually. This scene is familiar to them both, but is as intense for Hal as if it’s playing out for the first time.
Is it a good idea for the heir to an international hotel chain to rendezvous regularly with a dominatrix? Hal is thinking not and means this night to be a farewell—he’s brought a goodbye gift. The news catches Rebecca short but as a woman whose entire life is based on intelligent response to sudden adversity, she quickly regroups. Soon, she’s coming at Hal with a new vision for their shared future, one that will lead to a dizzying new series of mutual mind games.
Structured like a play, with colored lights swirling down between acts, Sanctuary is remarkable for never feeling stagey. On paper, the hotel room setting is limiting, but Italian cinematographer Ludovica Isidori (Test Pattern) never seems to shoot it from the same angle twice. Her camera often takes its cue from Hal’s emotional state, which veers into whirligig panic when Rebecca hints at having planted cameras in the room. His dead billionaire father would have asked for proof but Hal goes right to freak out, triggering a scene of destruction that’s both alarming and madcap. It’s a good thing this guy owns the hotel.
It seems a good bet Sanctuary will eventually play on an arthouse double bill with Steven Shainberg’s Secretary, the 2002 Maggie Gyllenhaal/James Spader dom/sub love story. Secretary paved the way for Sanctuary and is surely a weirder, sweeter, and more emotionally complex film. Years from now, Sanctuary may feel more clever than profound, but right now, Bloomberg’s cruelly sharp dialogue is a pleasure to the ear, and Qualley and Abbot a sparring match worthy of the Broadway stage. We hang on their every word but more thrillingly, on their every thought. All night, Rebecca and Hal hurl words and scenarios at one another, until they arrive, abruptly, at a place beyond role play. If revelatory dialogue can be like an orgasm, they share one, and it’s a kick.
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