Middleground (2018)


Directed by Alisa Khazanova
Country: USA/Russia

Mood and tone are fundamental in a movie, but if working on their own, it can make it a hard experience to endure. This is what happened in "Middleground", the debut feature by Russian-born Alisa Khazanova, which combines the conversational and the dreamlike in a sort of experimentalism suffused with parallel realities and memory gaps.

The director, a former Bolshoi ballerina who also wrote and produced, stars as a submissive woman subjugated by her presumptuous husband (Chris Beetem). They are staying at a hotel, where he has these routined business meetings to strategize how to get Chinese funders for a profitable deal. The same scenario, always mysterious and baffling, repeats a few times more, probing possibilities as behaviors and moods keep changing.

At first, we see the couple in the desolate restaurant of a bizarre hotel. There’s tension in their conversation and he just flips out because she forgot to remind him about an important phone call; also because she smoked in his car and has that blank expression on her face. In the meantime, she finds a spider web in her wine glass but there’s no one there to complain. He leaves her alone at the table to meet his business partner Marcus (Daniel Raymont) outside. A stranger (Noah Huntley) then approaches the woman and talks as if they knew each other for a long time. He even mentions an affair with her. The woman leaves quickly, a bit uncomfortable and certainly not believing him. He remains in the restaurant where the bartender (Rob Campbell) lectures him about influences, including the ones of booze and opium.


The second vignette shows the couple at the same restaurant, a bit more composed this time. The glass of wine is broken and there’s a waiter who brings them a bottle of wine to compensate that fault. The husband is slightly nicer now, but leaves the table anyway. His wife refuses to go with him and has an uncanny conversation with the stranger about illogical memories. The first memory that pops into her head has to do with her sister - vaguely related to a few blurred and wide angled dreamlike passages that focus on a young girl named Olga. These sequences are gracefully accompanied by sober piano notes, after which a different bartender talks about parallel realities.

For the last section, the husband unexpectedly turns into a considerate guy, but his bored wife seems to enjoy more the company of the stranger, who talks about deja-vu and supernatural premonition. Tipsy, she believes in fairytales, while he believes in a glass of wine and the memories of a great time spent together and in love. Which reality suits you best?

Although well acted, mindful, and visually arresting, the film doesn’t go beyond its hypothetical circumstances. The thin line between the real and the imaginary is reinforced by a structure whose looping segments are mutable, in the same line of Tykwer’s "Run Lola Run" and Kieslowski’s "Blind Chance". Without achieving that desired emotional depth to elevate it above the acceptable or simply satisfying, "Middleground" runs whimsically loose and exploratory throughout, living essentially from the intensity of its mood.