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TIFF 2022: Sanctuary, The Menu, Biosphere

High-concept, single-setting pieces were a trend at TIFF this year, and likely for some time to come. It’s almost like the pandemic turned movies into plays (“The Whale” qualifies here too), and it was interesting to see which filmmakers could still find a way to make the limited scope of their stories unquestionably cinematic. There’s nothing wrong with a single location drama—in fact, it’s a subgenre I’m often drawn to as a former theatre major—and it was fun to watch performers show off in these films without the benefit of multiple settings or costume changes. Of course, some fared better than others, but all three films in this dispatch undeniably highlighted performers going all in, as if they were almost inspired by the restrictions of their productions.

My fave of the three is Zachary Wigon’s vicious little two-hander “Sanctuary,” starring the compelling duo of Margaret Qualley and Christopher Abbott. The performers here have such generous chemistry with one another and it’s a joy to watch them play out this psychosexual commentary on gender and power roles with such artistic fervor. This is a film that toys with perception and control with wickedly sharp dialogue that these two incredible actors just eat up. It’s proof that single-setting two-handers can still be vibrant and alive when the writer, director, and actors are all on the same riveting page.

Hal Porterfield (Abbott) has been thrust into a role that he may not be capable of filling, inheriting a massive hotel empire from his just-deceased father. We’re talking over 100 luxury hotels around the world, thousands of employees, generational wealth, etc. And Hal has to undergo a meeting with an attorney to answer some lingering questions about his darkest secrets before the board approves his ascension. From the beginning, Rebecca (Qualley) seems a little more aggressive with Hal than your average legal eagle, and then the conversation gets even more intense and darkly sexual. It turns out that this has all been a bit—Rebecca is Hal’s dominatrix, someone who regularly acts out these role-plays with her most loyal client, complete with a script she’s supposed to follow.

After their session, Hal drops a bomb on Rebecca: the spotlight of his new position means he can’t see her anymore. He even bought her a watch like people get when they retire. She doesn’t take the news well. She claims that she’s basically made Hal into the man he is today, giving him the confidence to climb the corporate ladder. He is allowed to be a submissive with her so he can get that out of his system and be the man he needs to be elsewhere. Rebecca demands way more than a going-away present. And the two begin a battle of wills that’s brilliantly set against a canvas wherein the viewer sometimes wonders if it’s not just another one of their sessions.

Qualley seems to just get better each time out. Her work in “Maid” was spectacular, and this is arguably her best film performance to date, refusing to lean into clichés about sex workers and finding such complex range in this fascinating character, someone who may be the hired employee in this dynamic but has all the control. Yes, Hal pays Rebecca, and even writes the scripts, but she knows exactly how to push his buttons. Even if you’re paying someone to pull your strings, they’re doing the actual pulling. And Qualley totally nails a part that’s much harder than it looks, making Rebecca sly, sexy, and riveting. Abbott matches her in every beat, and it’s the chemistry between the two that really gives the film its kinetic energy. There’s something so thrilling about watching two performers play a tennis match of performance like this, made better by the athleticism of their opponent.

A similar chemistry feeds Mark Mylod’s “The Menu,” as viewers savor how much stars Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes were clearly inspired by one another, engaging in a wickedly satirical pas de deux about the shallow consumer culture that often comes from the cultural elite and how there are no winners when creative pursuits like cuisine become over-commodified. Mylod is a TV veteran, and his work on “Succession” likely influenced this funny, vicious satire, which starts as comedy but quickly turns into bloody horror. "The Menu" feels like it could have been inspired by one of the Roys' adventures in over-spending, taking the concept of a ridiculously over-priced, pretentious high-concept restaurant to violent extremes. It’s embedded in the narrative a bit, but Mylod allows his characters to ramble and monologue a bit more than he should have. I’m not 100% convinced this film has as much to say about high society as it thinks it does, and yet it’s an undeniably fun flick, a movie with almost no heroes. Eat the rich indeed.

The rich here includes Tyler (a wonderfully ignorant Nicholas Hoult), someone so committed to his foodie identity that he’s blind to nearly everything else. He would literally go down with the Titanic if there was a famous chef on-board still cooking. And this obsession allows him to take his date Margot (Taylor-Joy) for granted. She was a last-minute addition to this evening’s adventure, a trip to a world-famous, secluded island restaurant named Hawthorne, where they are greeted by the mysterious manager Elsa (Hong Chau, having a killer TIFF with her work here and in “The Whale”). She escorts Tyler, Margot, and the other guests into the dining room with an open kitchen aesthetic, where they will indulge in a 4.5-hour meal. It might be their last.

You see Chef Slowik (Fiennes) has a concept that no restaurant has tried before, using each course to pull apart the secrets and insecurities of his guests, which also include a bitter critic (Janet McTeer) and fading actor (John Leguizamo). Slowik has watched his passion become his burden as the morally corrupt elite pay him a small fortune to eat food they barely remember the next day. He’s put his all into his life, and now he’s ready to take something back, but Margot is the outlier, the guest who wasn’t supposed to be there and the person who sees through Slowik’s façade.

The script here by Seth Reiss & Will Tracy gives the cast some of the sharpest dialogue of the year and Taylor-Joy and Fiennes craft their characters into two fascinating creatures, a pair of people who see each other in ways no one else in that room does. Slowik basically has a crew of loyal soldiers in his kitchen, willing to do whatever he says, and he has customers who lavish him with praise, but they also seek to control and intimidate him, seeing him as someone closer to an employee than an artist. However, he underestimates the possibility that Margot may be the smartest person in the room, and it’s just wonderful to see the sometimes-stuffy Fiennes allowed to be funny and wicked again. 

With all of the meal presentations and character revelations in the restaurant, I kept trying to find a more satisfying plate within "The Menu" in terms of social commentary. But it’s a movie I want to see again, a meal worth reheating.

Finally, there’s maybe the craziest of the two-handers, Mel Eslyn’s “Biosphere,” an ambitious project that doesn’t develop enough to fill out the length of a feature before it basically gives up on getting out of the corner it’s written itself into. It’s a remarkably tough film to review at this point because the people behind it have asked we not spoil what really ends up becoming its entire plot, so I have to get creative here. Bear with me.

There might only be two people left on Earth—Ray (Sterling K. Brown) and Billy (Mark Duplass). The latter used to be President—Duplass goes with a less exaggerated variation on the aw-shucks charm of politicians like the second Bush POTUS—and, well, he made the big mistake. It’s led to the former leader of the world being stuck in a biodome with his advisor and childhood friend Ray, who likes to consider himself the brains of the operation. He’s the one who stocked the books—Billy is reading Kiss of the Spider Woman, a very intentional choice by Eslyn—and even brought some entertainment, including Super Mario Bros. and movies like “Lethal Weapon” (again, both thematically-picked pop culture items). He also maintains the mini-ecosystem that includes fish that can provide sustenance. Shortly after the film opens, a fish dies, causing panic that’s shortly followed by, well, something new.

Duplass and Brown are incredibly likable performers, and they give their all “Biosphere,” but it’s an experimental film that never quite lives up to its potential beyond what could have been a stronger short or TV episode for something like "Black Mirror." It’s got a major twist that should get people talking about all kinds of things like gender, sexuality, and even evolution, but it’s all too thematically shapeless. I kept waiting for Eslyn and Duplass (who co-wrote) to connect the dots. Instead, they kind of take the easy way out, ending on an ambiguous note that essentially wants viewers to embrace the unknown—solid but unsatisfactory life advice for a movie like this.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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