Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) is here for legal counsel. But her questions for Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott) are getting inappropriate, and fast. She wants to know about the frequency of his masturbation, how much he drinks, if he’s capable of taking on the herculean task of running his father’s massive hotel monopoly. And Hal is getting annoyed. After all, this isn’t the script that he had written for Rebecca to perform.
Rebecca isn’t a lawyer, nor an actress. Not really. She’s a hired dominatrix in a no-contact sexual relationship with Hal, who really is set to step in as CEO of his recently passed father’s company, and who really does write extensive scripts to support his unusual sexual proclivities.
Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary is a two-hander that sees a power play through the prism of performance, class, and sexual dynamics. As Hal prepares to be introduced by the board in his opulent yet suffocating hotel suite, he tries to calmly dismiss his longtime paid sexual partner in the hopes of skirting thorny questions about his fitness for such a high-ranking financial office.
It’s unclear why at first, but Rebecca isn’t too keen on leaving the relationship. And the pseudo break-up triggers a prickly and electric dance of intellectual and sexual wile reminiscent of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It becomes nearly impossible to ever fully tell who’s in control, who’s genuine in their intentions, and who’s just trying to get off.
Nonetheless, if Wigon’s intention is to dramatize the push-pull, parasitic relationship of the ultrarich on the labor class as a semi-toxic sexual dance, it doesn’t really succeed as such. Really, Sanctuary isn’t much more than an excuse to watch two exceedingly talented actors chew on some decidedly pendulum-like and veritably sexy dialogue. And most of the time—that is, when Wigon instills his full trust in his actors—that’s enough. Throughout, Qualley is especially adept at straddling the line between multiple modes of performance.
Sometimes Wigon’s reliance on formal effects to communicate the subtle shifts in power that Micah Bloomberg’s script and actors make plain can feel needlessly fussy. But, then, this is a theatrical story told in a self-consciously theatrical way. In its engagement with performativity and adherence to a graphic color grading, Sanctuary recalls nothing less than Jacques Demy’s Le Bel Indifférent and Roberto Rossellini’s L’Amore, two Jean Cocteau adaptations about scorned lovers hashing out their dramas in claustrophobic rooms. Only here the subject is how our sexual desires don’t always match up with our basic needs for companionship, and how money can influence whether or not we have the ability to pursue our deepest desires.
That’s heavy stuff, and Qualley and Abbott are delightfully in sync when it comes to tightening and untightening the knottiness of the material. The panoply of emotions that their characters feel for one another—desire, hate, love, scorn, need, genuine care—is evident in all their words. That, combined with Wigon’s uncommon sympathy for two people living on the sexual fringes of society, ensures that this film involving sexual blackmail, a no-holds-barred destruction of hotel property, and knife-point contract negotiations is most disarming as an affecting romance.