BDSM has gotten a bad rap on film. Often presented as something indicative of a broken psyche or deviant behavior, the closest we’ve gotten to depicting it as a source of pleasure for those involved is Fifty Shades of Grey, a project fraught with mixed messages and dubious equivalencies.
Sanctuary opens on a strange note considering what it’s about. As shapes of diffused color roll about the screen, Ariel Marx’s score strikes a pretty, soft, romantic tone. It isn’t long, though, before that spell is broken and the film snaps back to its reality: a hotel room where Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott), heir to the Porterfield Hotel empire, is having one last session with his long-time dominatrix, Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), before letting her go. But Rebecca is a bit put off by the suggestion that their relationship is over, and is ready to fight for not just her job working with Hal, but for her job in the larger sense. Yes, Sanctuary is about the idea of sex work as real, valuable work, and it has much more fun with that premise than you might expect, because it’s also the most twisted romantic comedy you’re ever likely to see.
Micah Bloomberg’s script for Sanctuary is incredibly smart about how the “play” of BDSM can reveal who we really are inside, and how that can start to bleed into the “real world” in sometimes surprising ways. When Hal first hired Rebecca, he was meek and repressed, looking for a way to express himself that he couldn’t in polite society. But since then, he has grown into a man who can confidently ask for what he wants, and is unafraid to admit, at least to Rebecca, that he enjoys it when she makes him crawl on the bathroom floor and clean it with a piece of toilet paper before telling him to jerk off while she tells him that she owns him. Technically, she only owns him in the context of their fantasy scenes together, and Bloomberg gets a lot of mileage out of teasing out the question of just how much Rebecca owns Hal outside of their scenes. She’s a smart woman, and told Hal early on that she doesn’t allow physical touch in her scenes because what she and her clients want is mental, not physical. The psychological gamesmanship turns her on, and when Hal starts fighting back and trying to assert his power over her, she’s unsure of what to do with herself.
This is the sort of film that lives or dies on its performances, and both Abbott and Qualley are up to the task. They’re two of the most watchable actors of their generation, but they step up their games considerably for this, bringing scorching charisma and immense talent to the film. Qualley in particular has never been better – the script asks a lot of her as Rebecca takes some wild swings in her attempts to hold onto what’s hers, and she sells it particularly well in the quiet moments when we watch Rebecca process what’s happening and figure out her next move. On top of that, she slips in and out of Rebecca’s dominatrix persona with ease, biting into her lines with the relish of a hungry tiger and letting her lithe body do just as much talking as her mouth does. For his part, Abbott burrows deep into Hal’s skin, wrestling with the duality at his core: He is both strong and weak, pathetic in his scenes with Rebecca but confident outside of them. As Rebecca probes him more and more, purposefully breaking him down in the hopes that she can build him back up into what she wants him to be, Abbott walks a very tricky line between hating that he’s turned on and enjoying that he’s turned on. Both performers navigate the twisty script with aplomb, completely attuned to what the other is doing at all times, which makes it feel even more thrilling.
Director Zachary Wigon makes the most of the film’s single hotel suite setting. While clearly a COVID-era project, the film is dynamic and constantly cinematic. It never quite feels like a filmed play, even though it could very easily be one. Ludovica Isidori’s cinematography plays some neat tricks with unexpected angles, and enhances the power dynamics of the games Rebecca and Hal play. Marx’s score has a brilliantly counterintuitive main theme, but it does bring in some darkness to enhance the feeling of danger as the two characters circle each other. The whole thing feels very slick, and it moves well even as the script starts to grasp at straws to stretch itself out to full feature length. It manages to keep you guessing as to how it’s going to end right up until its chef’s-kiss-perfect last line, simply by saving its best trick for last.
Engaging in BDSM play can be extremely powerful. It has the power to reveal to yourself and others who you really are. But it only has that power if you have the courage to take what you learn about yourself in a scene and apply it to your everyday life. Watching Rebecca and Hal navigate that process in Sanctuary is as fun as it is ever going to get. It’s slick, sick fun for consenting adults to enjoy together. And if they happen to be inspired to spice up their sex lives with a little roleplay, well… the more, the merrier!
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. There is no U.S. distribution at this time.