Chicago Critics 2023 Review: SANCTUARY Is More SECRETARY Than BASIC INSTINCT
Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott star; Zachary Wigon directed.
The first fifteen to twenty minutes of Sanctuary are mischievous in ways that foreshadow the entirety of the film.
A beautiful young woman arrives at a handsome young man’s luxurious hotel room and begins a series of increasingly personal and somewhat cruel questions. Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) is ostensibly an attorney handling the transition of power from one CEO to another for the corporation that Hal (Christopher Abbott) is set to inherit and she must test his mettle.
It’s a tense scene where the tension is regularly diffused by Abbott overcompensating and outright lying about things like his weight and height, creating a sense of confusion about whether we’re watching a comedy or a thriller.
We quickly learn that Rebecca is not, in fact, an attorney; she is a sex worker, and more specifically a dominatrix who has been hired by Hal to perform a very specific scenario for his pleasure. She takes issue with the rigidity of his script and says that she would like to take control and give him not what he thinks he wants, but what she knows he needs. Thus begins the power play (or struggle?) that develops over the film’s runtime.
It’s a fairly standard erotic thriller set up that allows for shifting understandings of who is in control, what they want, and, of course, why. But as indicated by the opening sequence, Sanctuary isn’t exactly a thriller. There are credible threats of violence and questions of what will happen next, but there are also frequent jokes and interludes of pure silliness. It’s a film that fluctuates between something that seemingly wants to be taken seriously as a perverse and titillating thriller and as a romantic comedy playing dress up as something more dangerous.
There’s nothing wrong with a romantic comedy playing with power play; Secretary succeeded at marrying the two wonderfully more than twenty years ago. But Sanctuary struggles to decide where it wants to fall. There is a genuinely erotic sex scene that involves a knife and some talk of breeding, but it takes up less than five minutes of this over 90-minute movie, and even this scene feels less perverse than it does straightforwardly, and successfully, sexy.
At one point, Rebecca, who we learn has a history with Hal, goes over their past play sessions and lists games involving some of Hal’s family heirlooms and DNA tests confirming her Ashkenazi heritage. But this scene feels like it’s trying to prove the film’s bonafides in a way that ends up feeling more like an acknowledgment that there’s not much here that’s actually nasty; it also certainly doesn’t help that the games are listed off more as jokes than anything meaningfully salacious.
Of course humor is involved in dom and sub play, and all sexuality, but Sanctuary seems to want to play it both ways as a genre film; as a thriller that unnerves and arouses its audience and as an unconventional but ultimately heartwarming romantic comedy. In doing so it fails at being great at either.
It’s quite good as both; there are several laugh out loud moments throughout, Qualley and Abbott have great chemistry (more so in the sweet moments than in the tense ones), and the movie keeps you on your toes about what will happen next. But it never moves beyond “good” to something more exciting, or memorable.
The film screened at the Chicago Critics Film Festival ahead of its release in U.S. on May 19, via Neon. Visit the official Neon site for more information.