2023, R, 96 min. Directed by Zachary Wigon. Starring Margaret Qualley, Christopher Abbott.

REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 2, 2023

Sometimes it seems like a word or concept is in the air. Last week, HBO rebranded as Max, unleashing a deluge of comments about defunct streaming platform Cinemax aka Skinemax, the entryway to feature-length erotica for a generation. And there's a whiff of Skinemax's mature lasciviousness in Sanctuary, a sizzling tease of a chamber piece about power plays that connect the intellect and the loins.

Of course, it seems likely the instant we see corporate pretty boy Hal (Abbott), with his perfectly manicured roughness, that he's the kind with a certain kind of peccadillo: A suggestion that's given business-suit-and-satin-shirt form when Rebecca (Qualley) arrives at his hotel room. Lawyerly and organized, she's there to interview Hal in advance of his ascension to leadership of the family corporation he's inherited. Yet her questions pass through disclosure forms and into personal and intimate subjects, revealing that there's a lot more to their relationship than accounting.

Mainstream movies about BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism) relationships are a rarity, and the best ones appreciate that they are extraordinarily hard work that only work with the consensual engagement of both parties. Classic of the genre Secretary introduced audiences to the idea that it's not always the whip hand that holds the power, while Peter Strickland's delicious The Duke of Burgundy emphasized the emotional heavy lifting it takes to be on top. Oddly, Sanctuary feels like it takes place in an adjoining hotel room to Nicolas Pesce's 2019 psychosexual comedy Piercing: Both are functionally two-handers, both explore the power dynamics between a sex worker and their client, and both have fun with their far-from-vanilla eroticism. There's no onscreen nudity in Sanctuary, and physical contact is kept to a minimum because that's not Hal's thing. His deal is more about emotional manipulation. So while Piercing slowly revealed itself as horror in slut's clothing, Sanctuary has a different kink to tease, one that sensuously twists from corporate intrigue to sex comedy and finally to unexpected and pleasing new zones.

Of course, any such cinematic chamber piece is never really a duet, but a three-hander: In this case, Hal, Rebecca, and the camera of Ludovica Isidori. The cinematographer handled a different perspective on sexual consent in Austin-made rape drama Test Pattern: Here she creates a dreamy, opulent, and yet claustrophobic world within one hotel suite, capturing every sweaty, self-flagellating moment of Hal's inner struggle with his sub side, and Rebecca's attempts to grab on to the slippery.

But the deepest pleasures of Sanctuary are in how Abbott and Qualley – both identifiably horny and human – suck every drip of pleasure out of Micah Bloomberg's script. Like a found footage movie always has to convince the audience as to why the characters never drop the camera, so a one-on-one drama must explain why the protagonists never just leave the room, and instead remain in each other's death grip. By the exquisite end of Sanctuary, the question becomes: Why would they ever leave?

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Sanctuary, Zachary Wigon, Margaret Qualley, Christopher Abbott

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