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Review: Sanctuary (2023)

Sanctuary (2023)

Directed by: Zachary Wigon

Premise: The scion of a business empire (Christopher Abbott) attempts to end his relationship with a dominatrix (Margaret Qualley). A game of manipulation ensues between them.

What Works: Sanctuary is an intimate film. Most of the action is continuous, taking place in a hotel room between two characters. The filmmakers use those limitations to their advantage and Sanctuary digs deep into its characters and the complexity of their relationship. Hal is set to become the CEO of his father’s company and he has been seeing Rebecca, a dominatrix who engages in verbal humiliation. The relationship is not physical but it is intense and the film plays on the power dynamics between them which are quite complicated. When Hal tries to end his relationship with Rebecca she resists and the two of them engage in a game of wits that might be an extension of their trysts or might be genuine. The ambiguity is part of the point. Sanctuary is about the layers of relationships and how they create power differentials between these people. And in that sense, Sanctuary is about much more than the immediate conflict between these two individuals. It’s really about the way in which human beings, and especially men and women, relate to one another. The film is packed with implications about male and female relationships as well as class differences and romantic entanglements and business arrangements and Sanctuary is a rich text with a lot to unpack. This dance between Hal and Rebecca acts out all of that and every aspect of Sanctuary is keyed into these ideas. The performances by Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley are terrific. Their characters vacillate between moments of control and chaos and the actors allow each other to lead the scene as appropriate while drawing out the subtext. The dialogue is fun and smart. This movie is at times very funny and it balances an economy of storytelling with character details. The lighting and camerawork are superb. The color shifts dramatically, adjusting to the tone of the drama, and the framing and blocking of the action visualizes the shifts in power. The music is also really interesting. Early scenes are scored by sexy, jazz-like compositions that give way to moody pieces later in the picture. The whole film is extraordinarily well crafted, mixing craft, story, and characterization but also a sexiness and humanity and even a romantic sweetness that is intellectually stimulating but also extremely entertaining.

What Doesn’t: The end of Sanctuary is quite neat. It’s actually romantic in the manner of a classic Hollywood film. The tidiness of the conclusion is the one respect in which Sanctuary feels false. The bulk of the movie is a power struggle between these people and the truth of the film is in its messiness and ambiguity. The end clears a lot of that up. It’s a sweet conclusion but it simplifies some of the complexity that distinguishes the film.

Disc extras: None.

Bottom Line: Sanctuary mixes technical craftsmanship with tight storytelling while allowing for depth of character. This is a fascinating film to rewatch and Sanctuary is the kind of picture that gets better on subsequent viewings.

Episode: #974 (November 19, 2023)