Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Sanctuary (2022) dir. Zachary Wigon

A dom-rom-com.


When a film is likened to a play, the comparison is usually derogatory. Consider such stuffy, overly faithful adaptations as The Humans or The Whale, which are so slavishly true to their stagebound roots that you can practically hear the creak of the floorboards; as films, they feel perversely two-dimensional. At first blush, one might assume that Sanctuary, the twisty new erotic thriller from Zachary Wigon, began its life as a play as well: it features exactly two characters confined to a single setting, and propels its story primarily via dialogue and shifting power dynamics rather than action. But Sanctuary was written for the screen, and it shows. Where those films feel hemmed in by an invisible stage, Sanctuary takes full advantage of the unique tools presented by cinema as an artform. The result is a film as cracklingly smart, as devilishly funny, and as alive as any you’re likely to see this year.

Said location is a posh suite in a Porterfield hotel, part of a luxe and evidently expansive international chain. Character A is one Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott), heir apparent to the company following the death of his illustrious father. We meet Hal in the midst of a “job interview” which turns out to be an elaborately scripted encounter with professional dominatrix Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). The two clearly have a long-standing business-pleasure relationship– or rather, had; now that Hal is at the precipice of becoming the world-renowned CEO of a major company, he decides now might be a good time to quit spending his off-hours indulging his expensive kink. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with Rebecca, who informs Hal that she’s been secretly taping their sessions and will tweet them out unless he signs over half his fortune (“I want what I’m worth, relative to what you have,” she tells him with practiced authority). From there, the story escalates into a cerebral game of cat and mouse– think Sleuth, if Michael Caine and Sir Laurence Olivier were into weird sex stuff.

Though her star is clearly on the rise, Qualley is at present perhaps best known for playing fictional Manson girl “Pussycat” in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. There’s more than a little bit of Charles Manson himself in Qualley’s performance here, from her wild-eyed charisma to the near-psychic thrall she holds over her hapless subject. At times, her voice takes on the odd musicality of a revival-house preacher, drawing out certain syllables to almost other-worldly effect. Other syllables are clipped, lending her an air of authority even as she seems to verge into madness. “The words are just wallpaper,” Rebecca retorts when Hal boasts of the imaginative fantasies he pays her to act out, and it’s easy to see what she means; her power derives from her innate charm, presence, and skill. The same can be said of Qualley: this is one of the best performances of the year so far, and she turns Rebecca into a truly indelible character.

But if words are wallpaper for Sanctuary, it’s certainly well decorated. This is, after all, a two-hander, and while Wigon ably keeps the proceedings kinetic, the dialogue is the engine of the film; even the majority of the sexual encounters are pointedly contact-free. The McGuffin of the film is nominally Hal’s millions, but what’s really at stake is control of the narrative, and each character uses the verbal tools of their respective careers to attempt to wrest the upper hand. As the imminent head of a Fortune 500 company (and an American male to boot), Hal is ostensibly the more “powerful” of the two, and he attempts to leverage all the standard arrows in the corporate quiver: braggadocio, Getting to Yes doublespeak, and, of course, threats to make his nemesis “disappear.” The humor, then, lies in how thoroughly outmatched this well-heeled corporate scion is against this one wily sex worker. Hal has undoubtedly listened to scores of motivational audiobooks in an attempt to fill his father’s shoes; to Rebecca, it comes naturally.

Earlier I used the phrase “erotic thriller” to describe Sanctuary, and by the numbers I suppose that stiletto does fit. But as the film unfolds, it begins to look more like a far older arena in the cinematic battle of the sexes: the screwball comedy. Though quaint by today’s standards, the screwballs of the 1930s and ‘40s were just as subversive in their commentary on gender norms as anything directed by Paul Verhoeven or Adrian Lyne, and Sanctuary proudly picks up their anarchic torch for the 21st century. For all her kinks, Rebecca is a natural evolution of the dominant eccentrics played by Katharine Hepburn in films like The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby, and Hal takes the high-society submissiveness of Cary Grant to hilariously literal extremes. The unseemliness of the situation is offset by a certain playfulness on Rebecca’s part, and the sense that a part of Hal is secretly thrilled by his predicament (after all, is this that far off from the “games” he pays Rebecca to play with him?). “Charming” is not a word one often uses in relation to the erotic thrillers of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that’s pretty close to where Sanctuary lands by the final reel.

Going back to my opening point, Sanctuary could probably be turned into a play fairly easily (albeit maybe not one you would watch in a dinner theater setting). But something would be lost, just as something is lost from all those plays adapted beat-for-beat to the big screen. Sanctuary is a distinctly cinematic experience, and the script and performances are vitally aided by the fluid camera of cinematographer Ludovica Isidori and Ariel Marx’s swoony score (which occasionally recalls that of Psycho in its upper-register skittishness before blossoming into something altogether lovely). The scope of Sanctuary may be confined to a few hundred square feet, but it utilizes the medium better than any number of “globetrotting” greenscreened blockbusters. It should go without saying that the subject matter of Sanctuary will not be for all tastes, and I shudder to imagine what will happen should it prove popular enough to fall into the pit of Film Twitter Discourse. But for those who enjoy their pleasure spiked with pain, it’s a wicked delight.

dir. Zachary Wigon
96 min.

Opens Friday, 6/2 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema

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