BDSM power relations dominate the screen in Zachary Wigon’s SANCTUARY, a taut sexy chamber piece showcasing an incredible performance from Margaret Qualley. It’s a well-considered film that draws the audience into the tangled and shifting power dynamics of sub-dom kink and keeps the audience guessing until its unfortunate final moments.
Taking place almost entirely in a single hotel room over one evening, SANCTUARY charts the tangled dynamics of the relationship between Hal (Christopher Abbott) and Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). Hal is a wealthy hotel magnate who hires Rebecca as a dominatrix to provide him with mental rather than physical services. She degrades him by saying he’ll never match his father, humiliates him by making him clean the bathroom naked, and forces him to obey her masturbation instructions. But these carefully managed power relations shift when he tells her this has to be their last session.
Like many of these examinations of BDSM power relations, the central issue is ‘the bossy bottom’: the submissive who wants to be dominated and has such specific ideas about what they want that they hold the actual power. Hal has a carefully plotted script for how he wants Rebecca to dominate him, and so, despite appearances, he’s actually in control of what happens. This contradiction produces a tension between his sexual desire to be humiliated and wanting this to happen in a specifically erotic way.
SANCTUARY smartly balances its depiction of fetish and kink with the sense of mystery that makes BDSM alluring. When Rebecca returns to the room after being fired, it’s not clear what we’re seeing isn’t just another session and another carefully scripted scenario Hal has written to degrade himself. SANCTUARY keeps this sense of mystery throughout as the evening wears on, and the power relations continue to shift. Hence, the audience becomes part of their role-play by actively having to figure out who is on top and who is actually driving what is happening. While it doesn’t have the sensual weirdness of Peter Strickland’s depictions of kink, particularly THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, the film leaves so much unsaid that the audience is part of the game.
Margaret Qualley’s Rebecca is the stand-out performance, shifting sensually between personas of cold lawyer, harsh dominatrix, and vulnerable sexual partner. Her expressiveness propels the film forward with close-ups of her face filling the gaps between dialogue. It’s never clear what is true and what is role-play in her layered performance.
For a film about tangled and imbalanced power dynamics, SANCTUARY is unfortunately undermined in its final moments by a need to balance the power relations between the two. After a dramatic climax, a denouement attempts to resolve a story that didn’t need resolving and recontextualises the film to be about something it’s not. Leave thirty seconds before the credits, and the film would retain the alluring mystery that makes it work so well.