Sanctuary Review: Margaret Qualley Dominates In Twisted Sex Comedy [TIFF]

The sex comedy is a dying art form. Whether that's because of shifting societal tastes or a lack of Hollywood interest, there haven't been much of them in recent years. You could arguably trace the decline of the sex comedy to the slowly-tightening sexual purity that has ravished Hollywood over the decade (remember the so-called groundbreaking "Eternals" sex scene?). If we're being honest, however, the quality of mainstream sex comedies also didn't do it any favors.

However, this subgenre could get a new lease on life thanks to Zachary Wigon's "Sanctuary," a dark comedy that premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival that uses the allusiveness of BDSM to tell a grander story of relationship dynamics. The film's main and mostly sole characters, Rebecca (Margaret Qualley) and Hal (Christopher Abbott), are in an unconventional relationship — Hal is a submissive and ultra-rich client of Rebecca, a dominatrix who usually has strict rules regarding her clients' relationship with her. They must not touch her, nor attempt to be intimate in any other way besides what their pre-determined boundaries state. Unfortunately, when Hal attempts to break off their relationship due to him inheriting his father's massive hotel business, these rules are twisted and broken in a powerful and oddly romantic film. At least, you'll feel that if you're a bit of a sicko. Anyone else might just not get it.

You belong to me

The conversations and monologues conducted by Hal and Rebecca mostly work. Sure, some of the comments about the major class differences between the two can come off pretty ham-fisted (some lines border on shallow "good for her" territory), but those are outliers that are quickly followed up by fantastic dry humor.

What makes these barbs and jabs work are the electric performances of Qualley and Abbott, who convey a roller coaster of emotions throughout the film. The crumbling of and subsequent attempts at rebuilding their characters' personas are fascinating to witness. Ultimately, though, it is Qualley who commands the screen with her sometimes manic and other times heartfelt performance. There is a magnetism to her as she screams, cries, taunts, and dances throughout Hal's boringly rich-looking apartment, and she carries herself in a way that makes it impossible to know whether she's lying or telling the truth. As the stakes of the film climb higher, you won't be able to resist her charm and cunningness, even after the credits roll.

Hal's apartment, in a way, can also be considered its own character. Outside of the hotel's hallway and elevator, it is the only location seen throughout "Sanctuary," and it evolves and changes just as Hal and Rebecca do throughout the film. Thanks to the stunning cinematography and framing courtesy of Ludovica Isidori, the apartment comes alive. It feels like it is changing in shape, from being extremely claustrophobic to being far too large for either character to handle.

A nuanced look at BDSM

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is how sensitively it handles the central practices of BDSM. When you think of BDSM, you might only think of whips, chains, and degradation, and while you wouldn't be wrong in that, it's only a small part of the rituals that make up the concept. In the case of Hal and Rebecca's arrangement, the dominatrix orders him around to do mundane tasks while she sits and watches, occasionally berating him in the process.

The film makes sure to signal to viewers that everything about the central relationship has been thoroughly discussed, from boundaries to limits and safe words. While most Don't worry – we won't tell if you feel your breath hitching during the film's first "scene."

However, the dynamic between Hal and Rebecca is a complicated one. While she holds the sexual power in their scenes, it is ultimately he that sets the boundaries and pays her for her services. He is the son of a deceased billionaire, while she barely gets by with her bills. This is explored greatly throughout the film, especially during one harrowing scene towards the end of the film that shows Hal having enough of Rebecca's mind games. However, "Sanctuary" frames these dynamics not as a direct result of their BDSM relationship; rather, it derives from themselves as people outside of their scenes, both of their selfish tendencies that often do not appear when they're actually "playing a game," as Rebecca calls it.

Let's play a game

"Sanctuary" is exactly what you would expect from its logline; there aren't that many surprises and the film itself is relatively straightforward. That being said, its simplicity actually elevates the film. By focusing on the shifting dynamics between our two characters and nothing else, viewers are treated to a cat-and-mouse game where its players refuse to let up. With the infectious energy of Qualley and Abbott, along with set-altering cinematography and a tight script, there is a lot to love about this new, sick take on the sex comedy.

If we do recommend anything, though, we wouldn't want you to put this on for a night-in with your partner. That could result in some very awkward conversations, and the less we're implicated in those, the better.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10