Unhappy couple reaches breaking point in ‘Middleground’

Written and directed by Alisa Khazanova, Middleground illustrates the fragility of reality in a sparse and eerie style that follows an unhappy couple through their temporary surroundings at a business conference. (DLH: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Intern Dayna Hagewood

The first scene opens with the restaurant and bar that the majority of the film takes place in. This time, Husband (Chris Beetem) and Woman (Alisa Khazanova) are the only two people present. The place is deserted, which pairs nicely with the blankness on Woman’s face.

After Husband walks out of the restaurant (Woman often comes second to Husband’s business calls, meetings, and professional obligations), Man (Noah Huntley) sits across from her and appears to recognize her. He claims that they had a relationship that Woman can’t recall. She claims never to have met him at all.

This situation repeats and contorts itself, though each time with more (increasingly yet distantly familiar) patrons in the restaurant. Despite this simple plot and set-up, the film complicates its fabric with every additional restaurant sequence and continues to trouble Woman.

Every time Husband, Man, or Woman are in the restaurant space, the concept of “reality” bends and contorts. It is difficult to discern what is true and what is not, in addition to what is actually happening and what is imagined.

We are never quite sure if the scenes are overlapping and repeating or new interactions all together. It seems as though the characters also struggle to piece together reality, offering a wonderful lack of omniscience to both the viewer and those present in the film.

The same scene reappearing in multiple different ways with little to count on (aside from a continuous issue with wine glasses and an argument about smoking in a rental car) has an odd and alienating effect that continues to pull in the viewer. We are constantly wondering what conversations occurred and noting what repeats and is intentionally omitted.

This dissonance between the imaginary and the real grounds the film in a surreal space that exists somewhere between a muted thriller and a psychological drama. That being said, though there is often no explanation for the coincidences and repetition, it is ultimately easy to suspend disbelief and to get lost in the swirling world of Middleground.

And yet, there are points in the film that feel heavy-handed, like an in-depth conversation between the original bartender and Man about opium. While it is clear what the point of the dialogue is, the film gets temporarily bogged down in order to prove a simple idea that ultimately becomes an afterthought in the bigger context of the world, and a concept that we don’t return to. Perhaps if there were more conversations in a similar vein, the opium sidetrack would be more impactful.

Even still, minor problems and small inconsistencies are comfortably overlooked due to the fluidity of the plot, especially considering that much of the film relies on well-written dialogue and consistent acting to keep the world suspended. Woman always seems very far away, and her haunting lack of emotion and vividly stoic expressions are a powerful influence in the film.

She is also the only character that seems to hold on to small fragments of “reality” as we know it, considering she originally rejects the interactions with Man. She speaks with her sister on the phone, and we also see her wander around the hotel.

These more mundane and realistic activities seem to ground Woman in a space separate from what occurs in the restaurant, and for much of the film, she clings to the tangible and real, until she too gets caught up in the spiral.

The handful of scenes that exist outside of the restaurant dining room provide the most clues about what Middleground is trying to get at; perhaps our realities are the compromise (the middle ground, if you will) between everything else that could have simultaneously been happening to us.

Middleground truly begins to gather momentum when other characters begin to become aware of the strange déjà-vu atmosphere that saturates the film and plagues Woman. When the roles of different characters switch and Husband is the final character to sit at the bar, he leaves us with a haunting question that grapples with everything that we have seen prior to that moment and makes us wonder too; can we really understand ourselves among a world of uncertainty and repetition?

© Dayna Hagewood (6/14/2018) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Man and Woman.

Top Photo: Alisa Khazanova as Woman.

Bottom Photo: Zachary Le Vey as Bill.

Photo Credits: Jeong Park, IMDB

Q: Does Middleground pass the Bechdel-Wallace test?

Yes. When Woman is wandering around the hotel, she walks into the laundry room and speaks with the maid about how white all of the towels are.

Tags: FF2 Media

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Dayna graduated from Rutgers University in May of 2019 with a degree in English and Cinema Studies and a concentration in Creative Writing. Dayna loves working with FF2 Media because writing about film harmonizes her greatest interests and allows her to participate in showcasing women artists doing amazing work. As a writer, film buff, and avid cross-stitcher, Dayna appreciates that FF2 carves out a space for women artists in an industry so unwilling to lend one to marginalized groups. She is proud to aid in creating and facilitating that necessary space.
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