4 out of 5 stars

Once upon a time, when most women wore skirts, “wearing the pants” was an idiom used to refer to families where a woman dominated in place of the patriarch—who was either too passive or incompetent, as happened more often than reactionary myths claim.

With women rising to the top and gender roles becoming fluid and skirts less commonplace, the idiom has fallen into disuse, but the battle of the sexes goes on. In the realm where men and women meet, who wields the power? And how much and when?

This question is explored with ingenious, scathing wit in Sanctuary, a whip-smart and perverse rom-com about a comic battle of wills—not between spouses or lovers, but between a dominatrix and her client. The setting isn’t the realm of the household, but that of the marketplace.

Sanctuary is a pas de deux chamber piece that unfolds on minimal sets over one night. Hal (Christopher Abbott), in his thirties, puppy-eyed, eager, and stammering, sits down for a job interview with quick-witted, feline HR honcho Rebecca (Margaret Qualley). We all know this ritual, but what this job will entail remains unsaid. The setting feels wrong; instead of a clean, brightly lit office, it takes place in what looks like a dimly lit, high-end hotel room.

Hal strives mightily to impress Rebecca. At this he fails, no matter how much he grovels at her every criticism. Finally, losing her patience, she orders him into the bathroom, where, at her command, he strips to his underwear and wipes the entire bathroom down to the grout while she sits imperiously in the doorway, making sure he gets every spot. (If you’re wondering why people have been dropping out of the job market, this may be a clue.)

Finally, Hal achieves the climax he’s been craving. During the post-coital glow, the pair share a takeout meal as they review the scenario they’ve just played, which turns out to have been written by Hal. They’ve been playing this touchless power game for a while. It seems a satisfying exchange: Rebecca earns good money, while Hal indulges his secret kink. Once the transaction is concluded, each goes their own way, until the next time.

But as Rebecca learns to her shock, there won’t be a next time. This is closing night. Hal is ringing down the curtain for good. The hotel where they’ve been playing is one link in a luxury chain owned by Hal’s tycoon father, who’s just died. Now that Hal’s taking over the family empire, he figures it would be inappropriate for the man at the top to be playing bottom to a dominatrix, lest his secret gets out to unleash all sorts of havoc. Now that he’s a CEO, a boss of bosses, there’s simply no place for her.

You can see his point. But as he rushes Rebecca out the door with sincere gratitude for teaching him leadership and an overpriced wristwatch (worth around $35,000), he fails to notice her displeasure. As she stands smouldering with fury at the hallway elevator, her eyes narrow when she sees a family photo of young Hal staring at his domineering father in abject terror. 

The show isn’t over, but they’re no longer playing. As Hal tries to step up to his new role, Rebecca bullies her way back. Those who achieve power seldom surrender it easily—especially someone like her, bound and determined to win. Hal isn’t just her client but someone more as she reveals how his so-called private kink isn’t private at all. The role he plays is too much his identity to be so readily dispensed with.

Hal has wealth and power and is also spoiled and a little stupid. As the night wears on, he finds himself locked into his submissive role as Rebecca outfoxes his every effort to get rid of her. The games they’ve been playing won’t help him in his new role in the way he thinks. He’ll be learning a new curriculum as she pushes him away from the fringes to the centre of Hal’s life.

Veteran filmgoers may recall Lina Wertmuller’s sex satire Swept Away (1974), where a lowly servant and his wealthy, spoilt female master swap roles after they’re shipwrecked on a desert island. It’s also reminiscent of Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was (1994), a grim two-hander about a passive-aggressive couple on an embarrassingly bad first date where neither of them seems willing or able to take control. 

Sanctuary is closer in its Marxist satirical spirit to Swept Away. The film was shot in 18 days; a tight schedule that likely ratcheted up the intensity. Micah Bloomberg’s excellent screenplay seems written for the stage, but director Zachary Wigon, cinematographer Ludovica Isidori, and editors Kate Brokaw and Lance Edmands keep it from feeling stagy with offbeat compositions, dark colour tones, a smooth mix of close-ups and medium shots, and swift editing, all topped off by fierce performances by the two leads. Though small in scope, Sanctuary explores a deep labyrinth of passions.

The film sometimes slips from its seriocomic moorings to become a soapbox debate. There are also a couple of credibility problems: Hal seems a bit too stupid about a basic fact of business and, at one point, he rolls over too easily when Rebecca resorts to blackmail. Clues to his character are visible all over the hotel, but Rebecca remains a mystery, beyond her actions, and her words, which we can’t take at face value. She could be a thoroughgoing liar, but we’ll never know.

She remains an enigma even after the final twist. Is their relationship only about power or something more? In this film, love takes a perverse path, and all relationships boil down to the question ”who wears the pants?’ In Sanctuary, Rebecca wears them perfectly.


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Cast & Crew

director: Zachary Wigon.
writer: Micah Bloomberg.
starring: Margaret Qualley & Christopher Abbott.