TIFF 2022 ‘Sanctuary’ Review: A Thrilling Nostalgia Trip Down Screwball Lane

This tense, sexy, and funny cat-and-mouse chase is a testament to a contained setting and tight dialogue.


As intricately wrought as a Hitchcock thriller, or perhaps as a Cary Grant screw-ball comedy, Sanctuary is intelligent, sharp, and a delicious reminder of the power of well-written dialogue. Contained within a small space, this film allows for its lead actors and its words to swell, all as it unfurls before us one of the most exciting, nuanced, and sexy cat-and-mouse chases — a good old-fashioned battle of the sexes — we have seen in about a century. 

The film is written by Micah Bloomberg and directed by Zachary Wigon, and, as mentioned, the film takes place within a space so confined it gives Colin Farrell’s phone booth in Phone Booth a run for its money. Sanctuary is about the heir to a hotel franchise Hal (Christopher Abbott) and his dominatrix Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), or more precisely, what happens when Hal lets Rebecca go. Hal’s father recently died, meaning he will soon become CEO, meaning he will no longer need Rebecca’s services. Rebecca is distraught for many mysterious reasons by Hal’s ending their relationship — she is good at her job and over the course of their relationship, because of her work in their relationship, she has seen Hal become a more confident person; accordingly, she sees herself as having a stake in Hal’s business. The rest of the film looks on as Rebecca works to persuade Hal to continue their relationship.

It’s almost vertigo-inducing, the first few minutes of Sanctuary, for how they endlessly and without respite play with our expectations. Hal’s particular kink is humiliation, or, more precisely, he enjoys role-playing games whose scripts, anchored in his humiliation, he has meticulously written and memorized, scenarios in which he is, for example, interviewing for the job that he will receive by default on account of his birth, except the questions Rebecca asks of him get increasingly personal and increasingly degrading. This detail about Hal’s penchant for scripts always has us guessing whether anything at all in Sanctuary is unscripted, diegetically, that is — we are always kept on the edges of our seats when it comes to what is and what isn’t expected by the main characters. 

The film toys mischievously, and with much more shrewdness than one might expect, with ideas of control, wealth, Jewish culture, and ultimately gender. Rebecca comes from a much more meager financial background than Hal, she needs her job and Hal’s money to stay alive, literally, she needs to work, not just put up a front of work, or laboring, which an heir like Hal does. But Hal has Rebecca dominate him, needs her to order him around, control when he can orgasm, in a deeply interesting way — it’s a curious affirmation of the idea that powerful men all have fantasies of being dominated in the bedroom simply because their jobs require leadership. Rebecca is dependent on Hal for a living, and Hal is dependent on Rebecca for confidence. With the end of the first act, the movie demonstrates the shaky foundation on which power sits in this movie when Hal “dumps” Rebecca after she has allowed him to orgasm — he wears the power he has professionally, leaving Rebecca unemployed and worried about how she might survive.

But there is yet a further twist here, because Hal seems pretty effete in his professional life, and in his personal life, he’s ordered around by his apparently overbearing mother. Rebecca learns this, and, using this knowledge to leverage back some power over Hal, plays with Hal in the film as though he were a mouse and she an alley cat. This endless negotiation of power is deeply interesting, for it ultimately shows how defunct gender essentialism is. In so many aspects, Hal seems powerless and useless, but he still has the material power that class and wealth bestow upon him, and Rebecca, a working class woman (a powerless person in many aspects of her life), still pursues Hal powerfully for his money, dominating him sexually and intellectually time and time again.

It’s almost philosophical, the open questions Sanctuary raises about preconceived notions of gender, sex, and class. Leaving the film, you feel as though you have eaten a mightily satisfying meal, but one that will remain with you for a while — you will find yourself thinking about Sanctuary over and over again, wondering whether there could ever be a winner here.

Because that is the thing — it’s joyously tricky figuring out whether Hal or Rebecca has the upper hand within the small hotel room that the film takes place in, that is in Hal’s family’s name. They both give everything they have — their minds and bodies and their words — in the attempt to overpower the other, all in the most entertaining way, and a clear winner never emerges. They both seem to inextricably be connected to one another that a winner seems impossible at all, it’s almost a modern love story these two share, they are either star-crossed lovers or performing a transactional exchange of goods, but perhaps both, because so many relationships in 2022 seem transactional anyway, the film seems to say. The fact that this idea can be so endlessly pondered, that Sanctuary is able to raise these interesting questions, is because Bloomberg has done a stellar job of crafting the film’s dialogue. The fast back and forth between Hal and Rebecca is so delightfully reminiscent of the spitfire dialogue in something like His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby

Screwballs of the ‘30s always had sex as a subtext to the fiery fast dialogue the male and female characters would spit at each other like daggers. It’s no different here, even as sex has crept to the forefront with the sexual power-play, which perhaps ups the ante on thrill. Rebecca spits psychological readings of Hal at him as though they were a spray of venom, meant to hurt by how searing and raw they are, all in an attempt to disarm him before she can make him do whatever she wants, and Hal does the same to Rebecca in turn — but this vitriol swilling seems just as much an act of lovemaking as the actual sex scene the film later presents us with, but perhaps they’re more meaningful than simple fucking. The psychological reads meant to gain each character the upper hand seem like a validation from one to the other, an admission of understanding their struggle and caring for them anyway. The insults are a kind of seeing — of understanding the person enough and seeing them so fully that they can craft insults that strike a nerve — that transcends sex, that might be more pleasurable than sex.

The repartee Hal and Rebecca share is to die for, but this is only possible because of the chemistry between Abbott and Qualley. Abbott is perfect as the fearful Hal, simultaneously afraid of and loving powerful and domineering women. And then there’s Qualley, who has so obviously and to brilliant effect put her all into this role. She showcases her stellar acting chops through Rebecca. When Rebecca is cornered by one of Hal’s acidic diatribes, we can see her brain working like an abacus, calculating as she prepares her own onslaught. The film, understanding its confinement, knows that it will need to find drama in its actors’ faces when none can be found in setting. And it finds plenty of beguiling drama in Qualley’s face and her movements. So many times the camera closes in on Rebecca’s face to see her hurt or to see her lips bloom with a triumphant smile, or to see her eyes darting maniacally. So many times the camera’s gaze twirls about Qualley, who uses her physicality to amazing effect as she allows for her potential (hinted at, always up for question and debate, just as every other aspect of the script) insanity to run through her limbs. She lets down her hair, literally, and shakes it about confidently, knowing a show of fearlessness and confidence is exactly how she will ultimately dominate Hal.

And whether it is financial domination or romantic is always up for debate, up until the film’s very final frame. Sanctuary is a delight and a stunning masterclass in the power of a good script and brilliant acting. Watch it for a nostalgia trip down screwball lane. 

Leave a CommentCancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.