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‘Sanctuary’ review: Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott play erotically tinged cat-and-mouse game

An almost hotel empire heir engages in an erotic and witty battle of the minds within a hotel room.

Neon Pictures

If only hotel walls could talk – they would tell all the wicked and lusty tales. It’s amazing what history one series of enclosed rooms can contain, and director Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary refines its eyes around the peripherals of two people, Hal (Christopher Abbott) and Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). The film enters in an almost innocent fashion. Hal is ordering an extravagant dinner from room service. Rebecca comes in to vet him for a CEO job. Hal’s dad used to oversee a multi-millionaire hotel chain, but he’s passed away, and Hal is next up on the totem pole.

At first, there are some conventional questions – name, date of birth, and social security number. But as they go on, they become more and more invasive. Rebecca asks about his weight and height, and Hal lies about it. Then she asks about his sexual history and possible diseases, and Hal hesitantly answers. However, with a sudden break in the conversation, the audience finds out Hal laid this scenario out in a script for Rebecca to follow – she’s a dominatrix, and they have a long-standing relationship.

Sanctuary is an erotic drama that uses sex as a secondary tool or potential reward. The name of the game is power – depending on the character, they either want to yield it desperately or to be under the thumb of it. While Hal is on the precipice of ascending to this top position, he's kind of a loser. Without the presence of his father, he wallows in this aimless nature of wondering what to do next and cannot rely on himself as a north star. Rebecca, well, she knows it and exploits it. (it is her job to). However, writer Micah Bloomberg’s writing shows there is more to the story than just a business transaction.

Neon Pictures

It takes a lot of things to work in such a limited setting, but Sanctuary’s little elements all come together. Things start with the acting chops of Abbott and Qualley together – exquisitely fueling each other's performances as the stakes get raised. At one point, Hal decides that he’s going to fire Rebecca and gives her an expensive watch as a parting gift. There are two ways to look at this gesture; one, it’s an attempt at control from a person who lacks any leverage in this relationship. Secondly, it’s how Hal dismisses Rebecca – she doesn’t take too kindly to it and then exerts her control back with possible methods of blackmail.

While intense swings of emotions occur, cinematographer Ludovica Isidori prefers to keep the aspect ratio focused on the faces and upper half of the characters. It adds to this almost twisted romantic dynamic they have. The production design highlighting a mostly red hotel suite and ensuring certain things happen in specific rooms also adds a nice touch. It’s not necessarily that a conventional rom-com exists within Sanctuary – I don’t get the sense that Wigon is necessarily making the case of these two riding off into the sunset together. Despite that, something exists between Hal and Rebecca within those walls they lack in the outside world.

Sanctuary interweaves some class dynamics with Hal's impending fortune and tries to exert that as an anvil over Rebecca. But she knows a lot more about him than he initially thinks. Thus, speaking to the mantra that money can’t buy everything (well, self-confidence in this instance). Here exists a man who begrudgingly throws millions of dollars to try to get rid of somebody against a woman whose needs aren’t rooted in just monetary compensation.

The film’s hour-and-a-half run time works to its advantage – not overstaying the welcome provided and ending in such a way that you want to see where the characters end up. A lot of depth accumulates when you don’t just stick to the story. Hal and Rebecca know this – even if they don’t want to admit it to each other. At points, Sanctuary takes a beat with a beautiful package of color palettes like an interlude in a play. Everybody wears a mask, and it takes the right people to make us want to show our faces.

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