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‘Sanctuary’ TIFF 2022 Recap – Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott are a match made in psychosexual heaven

They say it’s all about sex except sex, which is about power. Through the transitive property that makes everything about power. Even our closest and most loving relationships are ultimately governed by delicate balances of power. If a person intends to upset the balance, perhaps in a scenario where it’s unclear who has more power over the other, you can expect a reckoning. refuge understands this principle and takes it to the extreme in one of the most sizzling and spectacular films of the year.

Hal (Christopher Abbott) believes he has a very clear relationship with Rebecca (Margaret Qualley): She acts out pre-programmed sexual fantasies as a dominatrix in his apartment, and he pays her for it. During the film’s first scene, a prelude to three loosely defined acts, Rebecca appears in Hal’s hotel suite as a clerk reviewing Hal for his new position as CEO of his father’s luxury hotel empire. Slowly but surely it turns out to be an erotic role-playing game. Before you know it, Hal is on his knees cleaning the bathroom while Rebecca scolds him and sprawls on a chair by the door.

That first scene is a smugly funny role reversal that gives us what the film’s synopsis promises, but it’s also the only time it feels like the roles are reasonably clearly separated. It plays with audience expectations, but only enough to provide a basis for what’s to come. Over the course of the film’s brisk 96-minute run, director Zachary Wigon and writer Micah Bloomberg blur fantasy and reality so vividly that you’re never quite sure what’s real, what’s not real, or even what.

Courtesy of TIFF

Capture the next moment of the film where Rebecca takes off her blonde wig and shares a room service dinner with her client. Certainly not the dynamic one would expect from a professional business relationship. Hal even gives her an expensive watch as a thank you. There is a camaraderie here that is unfortunately being turned on its head. See, this watch isn’t just a thank you. It’s a farewell glass.

Hal’s script was partially based on the truth: him is is about to take over his father’s company and decides to end his relationship with Rebecca in hopes of avoiding a possible scandal. To see her stripped of her power over Hal, powers that never existed outside of her imagination, is heartbreaking. However, when she walks away defeated, something changes. She returns, insisting their relationship is more valuable than Hal realizes, not only to her (after all, she needs the money), but to him as well. In fact, Hal wouldn’t be where he is today without her.

When Rebecca is abandoned, she doesn’t settle for pleasantries. “I want what I’m worth for what you have.” Rebecca was already great at wielding power over Hal, but now she must do it without a script. No wonder she excels at that too. What follows is a masterful turn from Qualley that caught your attention from the start, but escalates into something career-defining in this moment.

It’s a performance that demands control over every moment, sensual and sadistic in equal measure. Even when it seems like she’s letting go, you can feel Qualley’s precision in every decision. It suits Christopher Abbott well, who can’t afford to be anything but deeply vulnerable. Hal struggles to keep up with Rebecca’s power games and Abbott plays this uphill battle skillfully, but make no mistake: this is Margaret Qualley’s film.

Courtesy of TIFF

The two engage in an exciting battle of wits and cunning, a two-handed game in almost one place that defies both of these limitations. Loosely based on a one-act play, Bloomberg’s screenplay is constantly evolving, full of twists and turns that carefully reveal themselves. It’s an experience that ranges from explosive to romantic to heartbreakingly honest and never lets go once. Ludovica Isidori’s cinematography shoots a single hotel suite like a mini mansion, constantly changing lighting and composition to reflect the role changes.

Unlike other festival favorites, which have been criticized for failing to overcome stage-to-screen adaptation, refuge is delightfully cinematic in every way. Even in scenes that take place in an elevator (I said nearly in a single place) Zachary Wigon finds ways to convey every psychological detail in an artistically compelling yet highly entertaining way. The climax is a hilarious final scene that wraps the film in a neat arc without sacrificing its grandiosity, refuge is literally flawless from start to finish and should be on everyone’s radar after festival season.

Sanctuary had its world premiere in the Special Presentations Section of the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

Director: Zachary Wigon

Writer: Micah Bloomberg

Rated: NO

Duration: 96 mins

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