In the opening scene of Zachary Wigon’s wily and surprising “Sanctuary,” you’ll probably be wondering why somebody from a large corporation’s personnel department would conduct an interview in a hotel suite. But Rebecca (Margaret Qualley), prim and proper in a suspicious blonde wig, doesn’t seem too big on human resources protocols. Especially when she starts asking the subject about his masturbation habits. His name is Hal (Christopher Abbott), and he’s about to become the new CEO of his recently deceased father’s hotel empire. This chat is supposed to be a formality for the board of directors, but Hal’s tanking it badly, swigging whiskey from the minibar while claiming to be sober and insisting that he’s 6’3’’ despite all visual evidence to the contrary. Even worse, Rebecca keeps ad-libbing.
See, it's not an interview at all. She’s actually a professional dominatrix, and this is part of an elaborately scripted humiliation scenario by Hal — soon he’ll be on his hands and knees scrubbing the bathroom floor — to help the young man overcome his insecurities about assuming this new position. They’ve been working together in sessions like this for some time, long enough that Rebecca knows when she can get a better result by going off-book. The two understand each other pretty well, or at least they think they do. But all good things must come to an end.
Like his Shakespearean namesake, Hal realizes he must bid adieu to such unseemly company when he ascends to his figurative throne. Today was to be his final appointment with Rebecca, and he even bought her a $30,000 gold watch for the occasion, like an expensive joke version of a policeman’s retirement gift. The thing is, Rebecca isn’t going anywhere. By her way of thinking, she’s responsible for Hal being psychologically fit to run his father’s company, so she should be compensated accordingly. Like, more than just a watch. A percentage of his salary would be preferable. Oh, and she might have been secretly filming their sessions.
But the movie is unimaginable without Qualley, who, for my money, became a bona fide movie star the moment she put her dirty feet up on Brad Pitt’s dashboard in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” Not a lot of performers can steal scenes from Pitt, but her chaotic energy proved a dangerously sexy counter to his effortless cool. There are moments in “Sanctuary” when the actress looks unnervingly like her mom, Andie MacDowell, but their affects are entirely opposite. MacDowell is nurturing and beatific, while her daughter vibrates on an antsier, more unsettling frequency. (Claire Denis used Qualley’s unpredictability to great ends in last year’s aching, erotic “Stars at Noon,” which was unceremoniously buried by its distributor but is well worth seeking out on streaming.)
There’s a great shot in “Sanctuary” when an anguished Hal is trying to get into Rebecca’s phone to see if she’s telling the truth about having recorded their encounters. He’s holding it up to her face to unlock it, and Qualley sabotages his attempt with a quicksilver array of grotesque facial contortions, which is basically a half-kidding précis of her shape-shifting performance. Rebecca wears many masks, but the brilliance of Qualley’s work is that we can see a sensibility uniting them all. Movies with this many fake-outs feel cheap if they aren’t held together by a continuity of character. We believe Rebecca even when we’re pretty sure she’s lying.
“Sanctuary” reminds me of the independent films of an earlier era, back when the stuff you’d see at Sundance wasn’t as concerned about sending the right social messages and instead got messy and mixed things up a little. It’s not a dirty or explicit picture — if anything, it might be a little too tasteful in that regard — but it accepts the quirks and kinks of adult sexuality as everyday facts of life, and even turns out to be rather romantic when all is said and done. “Sanctuary” is a rare find at the movies this time of year: a fun film for grown-ups.
“Sanctuary” opens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Friday, June 2.