SANCTUARY (TIFF 2022) – Review by Ulkar Alakbarova

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Has a thought such as ‘stop the world I want to get off’ crossed your mind while watching a specific film? A film that you have no clue what it’s about; neither its concept nor what it tries to tell you? The film that you have no words to describe. A film that will make you feel as if you were in a cold and hot shower throughout. I will tell you what I planned to write about Zachary Wigon’s Sanctuary – this is just a phenomenal film that you won’t be able to not tell your friends about. So just go and watch it. End of review. But as a film critic, I should probably do better than that.

Sanctuary follows Hal Porterfield (Christopher Abbott), the heir to a hotel empire. Before he takes over his father’s business, he must pass certain questions prepared by Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). He arranges one last session with her. She is skilled, dominant, and can drive anyone insane. She is cold as ice and powerful, exquisite, and uncompromising. Her questions have no boundaries. All of them are intimidating, hurtful and spiteful. No person can pass it without being snapped. She knows she can make him feel uncomfortable to the point where he will act like a helpless creature, more like a slave who serves her what she needs. But this time, when the moment comes for her to do what she does best, he finally takes charge over himself and points her to the door. The question is – will she leave while it’s still safe to do so or would she rather stay and continue the mind game that can destroy both of them?

Set in a hotel room, the film opens with Hal, who casually speaks on the phone. Then we hear the door being knocked frantically. This is when we meet Rebecca. Without hesitation, she starts questioning Hal to ensure the answers she receives will be satisfied by the board of directors, so no one will oppose his role as a new CEO. All good, but the questions are becoming trickier to the point where he is demanded to go to the bathroom and begin cleaning the floor. If that was not enough, she asks him to get undressed and begin to pleasure himself sexually. If that is not enough for you to get hooked on to the film, what happens next won’t even cross your wildest imagination.

Because from that moment on, you will be hypnotized and watch whatever the two people are doing – dominating one another as they go through what they like and don’t like. Questioning their own darkest desires and demands. Demands that cannot be accepted easily by anybody. But Hal and Rebecca are not just normal people. Their abnormality has no limits – but that’s what makes them real. Screenplay by Micah Bloomberg is so clever, detailed and wildly imaginary, it opens up the pandora’s box of human behavior. Through his script, he flawlessly explores two humans that are not fit to be considered your friend or pal, or neighbor. But the whole point of the story is to find out not what we are and who we are with others but what we want and what we do and how we do when we are with someone we feel so comfortable with to open up our darkest desires.

Christopher Abbott as Hal and Margaret Qualley as Rebecca were sensational. In fact, it’s Qualley who dominates every frame she is in. Her tour-de-force performance knocked me out and will do the same to you. You will ask yourself at some point – is she real? Is she exploring her other self? Because you cannot be so darn good. You can’t capture madness if you have not met it at some point in your life. Nothing can add more to what is being done in Sanctuary. No matter what I say, it won’t be close to what it actually is – almost like you are being thunderstruck by the entire film and the performance by Qualley. Remarkable? Striking? Masterful? Superb? Creer-defining? The turning point? You name it. Because I ran out of words.

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Ulkar Alakbarova

Ulkar Alakbarova has been writing about movies since childhood. She loves black-and-white cinema. She worked as an independent film journalist in Azerbaijan. Starting in 2013, she has worked as a Toronto-based film critic/interviewer. She is a founder of and regularly covers major film festivals, such as TIFF, Fantasia Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Hot Docs and Sundance.