With a script within a script and roles within roles, Sanctuary layers on the twists in its take on the rom-com. Zachary Wigon’s sophomore film about a dominatrix and her client upends the romantic comedy genre’s usual approach to relationships with a delightfully demented but surprisingly sweet tale about sex, power, and, most shocking of all, love. It’s loads of sick fun — if that’s what you’re into.
Instead of the requisite meet-cute, the first act of Sanctuary finds Hal (Christopher Abbott) trying to end his relationship with dominatrix Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) after a bit of roleplay in a chic luxury hotel suite. Their connection — as well as what prompts him to break it off — is at once purely business and yet so much more. Poised to take over his father’s hotel empire after the older man’s death, Hal worries that their relationship doesn’t suit traditional ideas of what a CEO should be, and fears his secret getting out. Meanwhile, Rebecca doesn’t want to stop seeing him, and she schemes to keep her their connection intact by any means necessary.
Rebecca is alternately coy and direct, playful and cutting, and the character veers from neatly contained to entirely feral. She behaves wildly, but it’s all believable thanks to Qualley and her whirlwind of a performance. Abbott is less remarkable (perhaps only by default in comparison to Qualley’s dynamic turn), but his character is less dominant than hers by design. He still complements her well, creating a combustible energy between the only two people in the film.
In other hands, Sanctuary could feel like a stage adaptation, with its two characters interacting in a single setting over the course of less than 24 hours. Despite those constraints, Wigon and cinematographer Ludovica Isidori never appear limited, opting to use the camera and its full range of motion actively. Their energetic approach is most notable in a few moments where an unhinged Hal tears the hotel suite apart; it whips and whirls as he looks up, down, and around the saturated reds, blues, and yellows of Jason Singleton’s set design. A bit more of this wild movement throughout the film could have made things even more interesting stylistically, but there’s also something to be said for restraint.
Relatedly, even if Sanctuary isn’t your particular brand of kink, there’s something undeniably hot about Wigon’s film (though some scenes will be a bigger turn-on than others for the more vanilla viewers — or for those who can’t find cleaning a bathroom sexy in any context). Nothing too wild is present on screen, at least visually; Craig Mann’s work as sound editor produces what might be the film’s raunchiest moment. It all works well with how the film engages your imagination and is still strikingly intimate, even while it smartly refuses to show everything.
With a script from Homecoming’s Micah Bloomberg, Sanctuary is a seesaw of sexual games and power plays. It deftly balances discomfort with a brand of black comedy that’s as likely to get a smirk as it is a bark of a laugh. The film is intentionally opaque in regards to what’s going on or who’s playing what game, to say nothing of who’s winning or what’s really at stake. What’s so twisted about Sanctuary isn’t the sexual games played by its two central characters; it’s the manipulative tactics they use to get what they want.
Wigon’s debut, The Heart Machine, was a more serious take on modern romance, but it relied on a similar sense of unease; it’s fascinating to see the feeling deployed again by the filmmaker but in such a different manner. Wigon is clearly interested in relationships and relationship movies as a genre, and these first two films have demonstrated that he can come at the familiar topic from wildly different angles — both from his own work and how others tackle it on screen. For those who like their romances a bit off kilter, Sanctuary provides the oasis of the title amongst a desert of standard love stories.
“Sanctuary” is in theaters Friday.