By Susannah Gruder
Dir. Zachary Wigon, U.S, NEON
Rebecca, the dominatrix played by Margaret Qualley in Sanctuary, is more concerned with verbal intimidation tactics than physical control. The same could be said of certain high-powered executives who talk circles around whoever’s on the other side of the negotiating table or slowly break the spirits of their underlings. At first, there’s nothing distinguishing Rebecca from the latter, her severe blonde bob, sleek velour suit, and cutting language all fitting the bill of a business power player. She’s come to a hotel room, it seems, to grill Hal (Christopher Abbott) about his competence for his new job, both mentally and physically, as he’s the presumptive successor to his family’s hotel empire after the death of his domineering father. As their interview grows increasingly punishing and unnecessarily personal, with Rebecca moving from questions about his drinking habits to the age at which he lost his virginity, it becomes clear something else is happening.
We might notice that this is, in fact, a carefully staged, fully manufactured scene when Rebecca breaks character. She seems to supply her own commentary on their repartee, explaining that what her clients need from her as a dominatrix is more mental than physical. A later shot of the script that Hal has written for the two of them to perform together makes clear that he has engineered even her brief aside, and that he’s the one holding all the power in this tête-à-tête.Things culminate with Rebecca “forcing” Hal to clean the hotel bathroom on his hands and knees as she settles into a plush chair above him, spreading her lanky legs like a man taking up space on the subway (particularly satisfying if you’ve watched Qualley scrubbing rich people’s bathrooms in the Netflix series Maid). “You barely cast a shadow,” she says to him with a sad little lilt in her voice, as if she’s talking to a toddler who’s taken a spill on the playground. Ultimately, she arouses him to completion, cruelly whispering, “you aren’t anything” until he’s relaxed into a puddle of pleasure, like Succession’s Roman Roy after a phone call with Gerri. Daddy issues can run deep.
Zachary Wigon’s compact second feature is little more than an elaborate scene study, but the gutsy performances of its two leads generate enough power to give the film a good deal of gravitas. Shot over three weeks and confined to this sole location, the film is marketed as a sneaky thriller with shocking plot twists, but the script takes a back seat to Abbott and Qualley’s experimentation, which proves to be more exciting and unexpected than the film’s surprise ending. Since his start in Girls, where he transforms from a cloyingly attentive boyfriend to a hardened drug dealer complete with a Marlon Brando accent, Abbott has been Hollywood’s little tough guy that could, toeing the line between machismo and sensitivity. Here, he’s perfectly cast as Hal, a man whose confident status and outward appearance turn out to be all show.
With his crisp khakis and polo shirt under a blazer, he has the self-satisfied swagger of a Michael Douglas character in an erotic thriller. And as with Douglas in Disclosure or Basic Instinct, it feels inevitable that Hal is going to have his life turned upside-down by the will of a brilliant, beautiful, and oh-so-conniving woman. Indeed, when Hal tells Rebecca, now that he’s going to be CEO, that it’s time for them to stop seeing each other, she’s irate, all but yelling, “I won’t be ignored!” à la Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. “You don’t look it, but you really are so stupid,” she says threateningly. Hal feels it’s time for him to try and “match up his insides and his outsides,” since apparently as a CEO he can’t be someone who gets off on verbal humiliation, never mind that clients of pro-dommes tend to be powerful men with high-paying, high-status jobs.
Wigon first tackled the challenge of reconciling sexual desires with intellectual ones in his debut feature, The Heart Machine (2014), which follows a twenty-something woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) as she starts a relationship over Skype with a fellow New Yorker (John Gallagher, Jr.), all the while pretending that she lives in Berlin. Their connection grows as they converse for hours, despite the fact that she’s secretly having casual sexual encounters with relative strangers, further widening the rift between her two conflicting impulses. Of course, wanting to experience something different in bed from day-to-day life is pretty standard practice. But in Sanctuary, Wigon, along with screenwriter Micah Bloomberg, explores what would happen if we did, in fact, match up our “insides with our outsides,” taking our fetishes for a walk outside the confines of a scripted sexual encounter.
The huis clos of a hotel room proves to be the perfect safe space for this experiment. Rebecca’s sudden powerlessness after getting the news that her services are no longer necessary leads her to try and blackmail Hal, demanding half his expected salary and, eventually, a job at the company. She then claims there’s a video camera hiding in the hotel room, and that she’s been filming their encounters for this very purpose. As Hal tears the room apart searching for the camera, Qualley remains calm and collected, turning their power dynamic on its head (again).
Director of photography Ludovica Isidori’s camerawork shifts between carefully controlled static shots and frenetic close-ups that capture the room’s warm reds and cool blues and creates a baroque and claustrophobic setting for this manic game of hot-and-cold. Qualley’s unmatched physicality is on display as she blasts Bonnie Pointer’s disco hit “Heaven Must Have Sent You,” flailing her limbs and her burst of brown curls around to the beat, as Abbott becomes increasingly anxious. This tonal dissonance marks the beginning of each character’s unraveling—though what at first resembles a descent into madness reveals itself as a welcome disentangling of their complex roleplay.
Sanctuary’s shifting power dynamics and multilayered theatrics are reminiscent of films like Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, where you’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s part of a couple’s elaborate game. The film itself, confined to such a tight setting, is similarly removed from reality; money is merely the MacGuffin. They both want the relationship to continue, not simply for financial or sexual reasons, but, as it becomes clear, because of things far more significant, and far more connected to their inner selves than their outer circumstances. As their disguises fall away bit by bit, from Rebecca’s wig to Hal’s powerful posturing, what emerges is a surprisingly sweet, if purposely far-fetched, illustration of what would happen if two people let their guards down—and let their fetishes run free.