Solely set in a hotel room, this searing two-hander gets Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley digging into power, privilege, fetishes and fantasies.
August 17, 2023
Succession with BDSM. A reminder that love can sear. A slinky two-hander that's sometimes about only having one free hand. Sanctuary is all of the above, plus a psychosexual battle and a romp of a twisty erotic thriller-meets-romantic comedy — and also a reminder that there's something about Christopher Abbott in chic hotel rooms being teased out of his comfort zone by blonde sex workers (see also: Piercing). There's something about the actor in confined settings in general (see there: Possessor, The Forgiven and Black Bear), but only this supremely confident affair about a significantly complicated affair pairs him with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood breakout Margaret Qualley. As they verbally tussle and sometimes physically tumble, unpacking class, control, chemistry, intimacy and authority along the way, they're a chamber-piece dream.
Sanctuary's chamber: a sleekly appointed suite decked out in saturated colours and ornate patterns at one of the 112 hotels that share Hal Porterfield's (Abbott, The Crowded Room) surname. And the piece's point? The thorny, horny relationship between the born-to-privilege heir and Rebecca (Qualley, Stars at Noon), who enters his room with a sharp knock, a no-nonsense stare, business attire and a briefcase filled with paperwork. Hal's father has just passed away, and he's now Kendall Roy awaiting the anointing that he's been promised since birth. His companion runs through background-check questions, veering into the highly personal. Soon, after drinks, dismay and a snappy debate, he's on his hands and knees scrubbing the bathroom while she watches on. Now he's Roman Roy, complete with dirty-talk banter, but in a film directed by sophomore helmer Zachary Wigon (The Heart Machine) and penned by Micah Bloomberg (Homecoming).
The early reveal that isn't really, because it's evident to everyone who can spot that Rebecca's pale bob is a wig? That she's being paid to be there not as a paralegal, but to satisfy her client's sexual whims. She's a no-contact dominatrix, in fact, and she's stellar at her job. Their entire opening exchange comes with a script — not just Bloomberg's, but one by the future hotelier CEO himself — although she doesn't stick to it slavishly. While this rendezvous isn't Hal and Rebecca's first, she isn't aware that it's meant to be their last until he gives her a $32,000 Audemars Piguet watch as a retirement present over post-submission, post-humiliation steaks and martinis. Now that he's taking on the big gig, he needs his insides to match his outsides, he tells her. Farewelling their arrangement isn't something that Rebecca planned on, however, and she wants — nay demands — more compensation for ending their ongoing transaction, and for her part in moulding Hal into soon-to-be-crowned corporate head honcho material.
There's a puzzle-box feel to Bloomberg's clever and arching screenplay, with the narrative's layers matching the film's own, getting Sanctuary's characters and its audience playing the same game. Both groups slide into a scenario that swiftly flips, delivers danger in a meticulously orchestrated scenario, and where knowing what's real and what's purely an act is a riddle to be solved. For Rebecca and Hal, the stakes keep raising — both negotiate and threaten, cycle between flirtatiousness and bitterness, and dictate increasingly more drastic outcomes — in a cat-and-mouse fashion as desires, ultimatums, dance moves and furniture all fly. For viewers, picking how much truth sits in the pair's back-and-forth, where fantasy ends and reality begins, who really wants what, which is winning (and, if anyone can, or even genuinely hopes to) and when the next reversal will spring is just as lively.
With plain-as-day resemblance to her mother, her Maid co-star and Sex, Lies and Videotape lead Andie MacDowell, to prove it, Qualley might be a nepo baby like Hal — and excellent at acting like Rebecca — but via Palo Alto, The Nice Guys, The Leftovers and Fosse/Verdon, too, she's been demonstrating her bright on-screen future for a decade now. She makes savvy role choices, including Sanctuary, which paves a way for a gleaming path in screwball comedies if that's all that she wanted to focus on (it won't be but, even just on paper, her upcoming parts in The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos' Frankenstein take Poor Things, plus Drive-Away Dolls, Ethan Coen's first solo stint away from his brother Joel, are glorious choices). As Rebecca, she's pulled in a thousand different directions, all heightened. She can be cool, calm and commanding in one moment; raw and wild the next; then deeply vulnerable after that. She's oh-so-gifted at saying everything with her eyes, but makes every barbed and spiky line land.
Qualley's is an electric performance that's always a million things at once, and also astutely incisive at helping to interrogate a loaded haves-versus-have nots, employee-employer, battle-of-the-sexes dynamic. Crucially, she bounds through the feature with such alluring force that the movie's two blatant oversimplifications, equating sex work with scheming and sex workers with yearning for a romantic end, aren't story killers. She's well-matched by Abbott, who is as skilled as conveying introverted and repressive but posturing as Qualley is at getting fiery, exacting and expressive. Indeed, as Wigon clearly recognised, this duo makes slinging words a spectacle — among recent feuding film and TV couples, they're up there with Scenes From a Marriage's Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac for sheer potency. Sanctuary is infinitely more playful than that TV miniseries but, as it also gets heated in a claustrophobic setting where emotions run high, it still blazes.
Wigon doesn't solely rely upon a war of words and feelings, as flung around by two actors giving their all and relishing it, though. Visually, cinematographer Ludovica Isidori (The Harbinger) actively pans, shifts, moves and spins, all while never giving even a moment's reprieve from the two quarrelling folks having showdown after showdown across one chaotic night. If a film's frames are a box, then Sanctuary keeps rattling every aspect that it can within that crate, then witnessing everything bounce. Just like Rebecca with Hal and vice versa, the end result is impossible shake off. And the title? That's Hal's safeword — but neither him or Rebecca, nor the shrewdly, saucily entertaining examination of sex, pleasure, ambition, entitlement and inhabiting a part that they're in, prefers playing it safe.
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