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Sanctuary (2023): Film Review

Zachary Wigon’s latest film, Sanctuary, is a spicy psychological chess match between two stars in the making, Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley.

In the mainstream side of cinematic experiences, BDSM has been explored poorly, often presented as an indication of broken psyches and aberrant behaviors, and looked over as inappropriate or utterly destructive to the person partaking in such erotic practices. It is unfair that filmmakers have done poor research when depicting it on-screen. For example, the Fifty Shades of Grey series of films delivered mixed messages about what BDSM does to human relationships. However, its failure to present those mechanisms properly motivated the public to learn more about it, as people always have had a penchant for adventurous sex. Since then, we have seen more projects bathed in scorching erotic intensity. One of them is the latest film by American director and former movie critic Zachary Wigon, Sanctuary.

The title perfectly captures the essence of the topics depicted and its setting: the onscreen pairing of Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott’s safe word and a space for sexual expression, connection, and lust. The film opens with Ariel Marx’s score casting a spell all over it, guiding the audience through a colorful haze to a place where closeness meets foreboding, intimacy holding hands with sorrow. Although those early sensations may provide a quick glance at Sanctuary’s latter moments, they pave the way for its romantic and erotic tones.

Immediately after, we are greeted by the two leading players in this single-location picture. In a suite, the heir to the Porterfield Hotel empire, Hal Porterfield (played by independent cinema darling Christopher Abbott), awaits a visit from a “friendly” guest who has come to play. Someone knocks at the door; he’s anxious to answer the door for several reasons. Who’s at the other end? His long-time dominatrix, Rebecca (star-in-the-making Margaret Qualley), who’s rocking a luscious blonde bob-cut wig. Unlike what you might expect, Rebecca isn’t into laying down the whips, chains, or leather. Instead, she likes her work to be even more brutal: she verbally berates her clients while delivering a glance that tears them down completely. What Rebecca provides is mental, not allowing physical touch in any of her sessions because that restraint turns her (and the client) on.

Sanctuary (Neon)

When a person hires a dominatrix, it isn’t just for their own pleasure. They give themselves over to a higher power as an escape from their everyday life, where their worries and anxieties are gone for a couple of hours in search of bliss. Rebecca and Hal’s partnership has passed the line of vendor and client, dominant and submissive. They have had so many appointments that it has transitioned into a relationship, blurring the line between private and professional. These meetings they have with one another are akin to therapy. It has reached a point where they are a vital part of each other’s life. Rebecca gets money and potentially some fulfillment from verbally reprimanding the people hiring her. Meanwhile, Hal gets confidence and certainty, knowing what he wants, when he wants it, and understanding how to ask for it without being shy.

This fifty-fifty split of psychological attainments is obtained by the boundaries both parties set through their sessions. They might be role-playing, but the emotions are true; their smiles of enjoyment are present even though they are playing a role. When Hal lets Rebecca know that their latest session will be their last, she gets put off by the suggestion that their relationship will come to an end. Rebecca has other plans, hinting that she helped forge the man Hal is now and asking for some extra compensation. What begins as a BDSM session ends as a spicy psychological chess match that leads to a twisted climax.

From the get-go, Sanctuary draws some comparisons to Nicolas Pesce’s 2018 cinematic adaptation of Ryû Murakami’s acclaimed novel, ‘Piercing’. The essential pieces of the tête-à-tête are pretty similar: a blonde-bobbed dominatrix meets up with a client, who is coincidentally played by Christopher Abbott. What lies within the film is entirely different. Piercing covers darker Kafka-esque grounds, where it explores child abuse and isolation rendered from being voiceless. It’s far more brutal, as Murakami’s words are mercilessly piercing, just like the film’s title.

Meanwhile, Zachary Wigon takes on a more realistic tone to the characters’ debacles in Sanctuary. He adds more vulnerability and transparency to Hal and Rebecca, showing their insecurities at a full glance. Wigon and screenwriter Micah Bloomberg explore the crux of a dominant-submissive relationship. They want us to consider how their bond has shifted throughout the years of meeting in that pricey hotel room. How well does Hal know Rebecca? And how well does Rebecca know Hal, or any other client? As you think about their past while the movie goes on, you begin to imagine their history and how it has shifted in comparison.

Of course, Hal might have started as a shy guy who didn’t know how to ask for what he wanted the first time he met Rebecca. But, with her help, Hal has applied what he learned during the sessions to his daily living, and he’s finally able to be at the helm of his hotel empire. As their confrontation continues, everything seems to escalate: both are trying to be on top so they can get their prize. They circle around each other, complicating the scenarios when it could have been a clean exit. This standoff between Hal and Rebecca often feels like it could be a theatrical play of some sort due to its enclosed setting and dialogue-driven narrative. Cinematographer Ludovica Isidori makes great use of this claustrophobic location with her playfulness and style while shooting this unpredictable love game.

The main ingredient that Sanctuary has is, obviously, the talent in front of the camera: its leading duo of Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley. The two of them are becoming some of the most engaging screen presences in today’s cinema, slowly (and hopefully) reaching indie cinema star status. Abbott handles the duality of his character with proficiency, as his portrayal of Hal shows contradictory facets that add depth to the film’s power dynamics. Hal is strong and confident in some segments, but when confronted with Qualley’s venomous Rebecca, he is somewhat pathetic and weak. Another critical aspect of Abbott’s performance is the tightrope walk that Hal is challenged with, the duality of expressing whether or not he enjoys being turned on by all of this kerfuffle.

On the other side of things, Qualley has a switch that enables her to slip in and out of her character’s dominatrix persona. These constant mood swings reveal Rebecca’s thinking process, as the ponders what her next move will be and whether it will be in her favor.

Although I still prefer some of the other releases from the past couple of years that explore the complex relationships between dominant and submissive partners (The Duke of Burgundy, Dog’s Don’t Wear Pants, Nymphomaniac Vol. 2), Sanctuary is still a slick film that excels due to the great chemistry by its cast and the dashes of vulnerability added onto the script by Bloomberg. It may not depict how these BDSM sessions roll out to a tee, due to the movie’s plot contrivances and cinematic exaggerations. Yet, Zachary Wigon crafted an amusing feature that helps people get a grasp on how dominant-submissive relationships work.

Sanctuary will be released in US theaters on May 19, 2023.

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