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SANCTUARY Still 3 courtesy of NEON (1).jpg

The Hottest Movie of the Year Is Now on Hulu

By Sara Clements | Film | September 22, 2023 |

By Sara Clements | Film | September 22, 2023 |


SANCTUARY Still 3 courtesy of NEON (1).jpg

Ariel Marx’s score fittingly twists our expectations in Sanctuary’s first few minutes — just as the film itself will throughout. The music sounds traditionally romantic, the kind of tune that lovers would dance to in a sweeping ballroom. But this isn’t your typical romance film, our expectations crashing with a manic crescendo. The ballroom is a hotel room, and the dance is of a masochistic kind — a BDSM mindfuck.

Zachary Wigon’s second feature (now on Hulu) follows Hal (Christopher Abbott) as he grapples with the legacy his recently deceased father left him. Before becoming CEO of his father’s hotel empire, he must go through a company board-approved background review conducted by a representative attorney, Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). The questions are standard at first, then they get dirtier … sexual. The air in the room shifts as tensions rise, largely thanks to Qualley’s performance. Her tone of voice becomes sensual as she locks eyes with Hal in feral desire. Ludovica Isidori’s cinematography raises the heat even higher, framing only one side of their faces across a table, the scene cutting between them. It’s so hot that you can’t imagine why they wouldn’t just leap across the table and have sex right then and there. However, the reality of the situation is complicated. While they are presented as strangers at first, they know each other: Rebecca is a dominatrix helping Hal overcome his self-doubt over succeeding in his father’s place. Through scripted role-playing games, she services his mental arousal, not physical.

Abbott plays Hal like an insecure puppy dog as Qualley’s Rebecca drags him around by the collar. The camera likes to play on the pity he carries for himself with disorienting shots that build to close-ups. Rebecca likes to play on this, too. While in a green velvet suit and sitting in a power pose, Rebecca makes Hal get on his hands and knees in his underwear to clean the dirt behind the hotel room toilet as she watches. What gets him off is feeling like that dirt he’s scrapping. She plays deliciously with his fragility, daddy issues, and reinforces his feeling of inadequacy throughout the film, and only allows him relief (yes, that kind) on her terms. It’s all about dominance. But now in his new role as CEO of his father’s hotel empire, he wants those around him to view him as a winner, in contrast to the submissiveness that his sessions with Rebecca entail. So, he tells Rebecca that he needs to let her go. But she won’t leave easily, opting to make him regret his decision with verbal manipulation and blackmail. A war of wits and wills ensues, making it seem impossible for either of them to leave the hotel room or each other’s lives.

Thanks to Wigon’s direction and Micah Bloomberg’s script, which straddles both drama and comedy wickedly, Sanctuary is one of those films that knows how to ooze sex without showing it explicitly, with the bonus of expertly executing its narrative in one location. It can often get tiresome without changes in set pieces, but everything from the pacing to the performances keeps us engaged. Even the production design works well here to maintain the stimulation of not only its audience but the relationship between the characters. The red bedroom walls specifically capture the energy of the piece and the passion, aggression, dominance, and power that push the story forward. The shifting power dynamics between Hal and Rebecca are wrestled with provocatively. With the soundtrack of shrill violin strings about to snap, their cleverly crafted, twisted, and sensual mind games reach a scorching, satisfying climax, getting the characters just as hard as the audience.