The Movie Waffler New Release Review - SANCTUARY | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - SANCTUARY

Sanctuary review
A dominatrix doesn't react well to a client's wish to end their relationship.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Zachary Wigon

Starring: Margaret Qualley, Christopher Abbott

Sanctuary poster

Christopher Abbott's favourite play must surely be David Ives' Venus in Fur, as the actor has now made two movies that are practically unofficial adaptations of that stage work, which was inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel Venus in Furs. That novel gave us the term "masochism," after its author's surname, and it deals with a man who willingly enslaves himself to a physically cruel woman. Ives' stage adaptation reworked the book into a tale of a male director who finds himself undermined and infatuated by an enigmatic actress who seems to understand his work better than he does. A few years ago Abbott starred in Piercing, in which he played a businessman who hires a young prostitute whom he plans to murder, only for her to turn the tables on him in a violent, dominant fashion which he seems to enjoy.

Sanctuary review

Director Zachary Wigon's Sanctuary sees the nervy Abbott once again engaged in a psycho-sexual power play with a sex worker in the confines of a hotel room (one whose lurid colour scheme is so identical to Piercing you might wonder if both movies were shot in Abbott's own home). This time he's playing Hal, a rich kid who has just inherited his father's hotel chain, valued at almost $200 million. Hal is also a masochist who has enjoyed a professional relationship with Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), a dominatrix who pays regular visits to his hotel room. Ironically, while allowing himself to be punished by Rebecca, Hal is also a control freak who literally scripts their encounters, getting frustrated with Rebecca whenever she deviates from his pre-planned scenarios.

After one such encounter, Hal gifts Rebecca a very expensive watch and breaks the news that their arrangement must come to an end now that he's the CEO of a major company. Rebecca doesn't react well to this revelation. Claiming that she made him the man he is, Rebecca demands half of Hal's first year salary, which he claims amounts to $4 million. Hal laughs off the suggestion, but Rebecca doesn't appear to be joking, claiming that she has been videotaping their meetings and will release the videos if he doesn't agree to her arrangement.

Sanctuary review

This leads to a psychological battle of wits, along with what Preston Sturges would call "a little bit of sex," as Hal attempts to get the upper hand over a woman very skilled at ensuring she's always on top. As Hal becomes increasingly frustrated with Rebecca's unwillingness to back down, the threat of violence looms, but it's not always clear which of the two is the one in danger. Taking a cue from Venus in Fur, Rebecca seems to know more about running a hotel chain than Hal, even demanding that he give her a seat on the company board.

Abbott and Qualley are both excellent here. The former has a distinct ability to play men who seem simultaneously pathetic and threatening, and he's quite chilling whenever Hal gains the upper hand and threatens Rebecca with using his power to extinguish her. Qualley seems determined to distance herself as much as possible from the image of her mother, Andie McDowell, by taking on roles that see her play the sort of "bad girls" nobody would associate with her mom. As Rebecca she's very good at portraying a woman who thinks she's in control, but Qualley's expressive eyes betray Rebecca's vulnerability, reminding us that she's taking a real risk in winding up a powerful man in this way.

Sanctuary review

The trouble with Sanctuary is that having opened with a demonstration of how Hal and Rebecca's relationship is scripted, we're left to assume that everything we see between the two is similarly pre-fabricated. As such, it's difficult to become invested in the drama when we're waiting for the artifice to be revealed. It doesn't help that neither character is in any way worthy of our empathy; they're equally sociopathic in their own ways. The film is so reliant on dialogue in its storytelling that the audience is always being lead along by its characters, and we're put in the position of simply having to accept what we're told. Wigon never gives us any visual clues as to the truth of what exactly is playing out here. The result is like watching two very accomplished actors play out an acting exercise, and Abbott and Qualley seem to be having a lot of fun that never translates to the audience. Ultimately this tedious drama is for masochists only.

 is on UK/ROI VOD from November 6th.

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