A subgenre seems to be forming around Christopher Abbott. Coming to prominence working with the filmmakers of Borderline Films and starring in the first two seasons of Lena Dunham’s Girls, he’s something of an American indie movie star. After 2020’s Black Bear, a bifurcated narrative about filmmaking, and 2021’s On the Count of Three, a film that begins with a suicide pact, daring writer/director/co-star Jerrod Carmichael to discover a satisfying ending, a line could be drawn between two high-premise acting challenges featuring Abbott. Now, with Zachary Wigon’s sophomore effort Sanctuary, a third point anoints a trend.
Wigon’s chamber piece stars Abbott as Hal, set to take his recently departed father’s place as CEO of a hotel chain, and Margaret Qualley as Rebecca, a dominatrix who has a longstanding relationship with Hal. The film’s opening set piece depicts a session between Hal and Rebecca that he intends to be their last. But when she decides the watch he gives to her is not a sufficient reward for what she has provided to him — not just sexual gratification, but the assertiveness he will need to succeed in his new position — a game of power ensues between the two.
The opening minutes of the film feature a double fake-out. Quickly, Hal pauses the roleplay so that Rebecca can consult the script he’s written for her. However, by the time Hal comes, we have realized that this intrusion was also a part of the script — one Rebecca praises for calling back to their initial session. And so, the script that Hal wrote as a coda for his and Rebecca’s relationship becomes an introduction to Wigon, Abbott, and Qualley’s examination of performance.
By featuring the intrusion of reality into performance early in the film, Wigon and screenwriter Micah Bloomberg (Homecoming) prime the viewer for a similar meta twist to recur — if not an incursion of the reality in which they are making a film and Christopher Abbott and Margaret Qualley are playing characters, then one of some intermediary layer of reality in which Abbott and Qualley’s characters shift. Such a twist might allow the viewer to feel smarter than the film, but its take on performance is subtler, and Wigon never pulls the rug out from under us as sharply as he does initially. Though Abbott and Qualley are essentially playing the same Hal and Rebecca we are introduced to after their roleplay ends throughout the rest of the film, both characters employ a slippery combination of performance and truth as they grapple for power. As the plot progresses and the couple dole out revelations, we wonder if each is the truth or a calculated move — the answer is most often both.
Rather than attempting to shirk the limitations of a film set in a single location, Abbott and Qualley use the hotel room as a stage on which to perform. When they need to dominate the scene, they dominate the space, the choreography. Wigon and cinematographer Ludovica Isidori follow suit, sometimes content to let the actors rip, but willing to flit, bob, or invert between them. It’s showy work on the part of all involved, but rarely ostentatious.
The borders between reality and fiction, performance and truth, have been a popular subject for filmmakers this young century, and perhaps never more than at this particular moment. Wigon embarks upon an exploration of these themes without delving into a hybrid form which, as Michael Sicinski observes in his review of Viking, is a safer endeavor. But in a story centered around BDSM, the potentially illusory nature of safety, of the sanctuary Hal and Rebecca come to desire, is the point. And so, if Sanctuary feels like an exercise at times, it’s one that remains consistently compelling and ultimately moving throughout its machinations.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 5.