Issue 60 (2018)

Alisa Khazanova: Middleground (Oskolki, 2017)

reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2018

middlegroundThe English-language feature film Middleground (given the Russian title Oskolki, literally “shards” or “splinters”) was screened at UCLA in February 2018 as part of the “Far From Moscow” Film Festival. In a conversation with the audience after the screening, co-writer Michael Kupisk shared that the project evolved out of director and co-writer Alisa Khazanova’s fascination with Alain Resnais’s seminal Last Year at Marienbad (L’Année dernière à Marienbad, 1961). Coming after the film had ended, this information was hardly a revelation; it is, after all, essentially a remake—both narratively and thematically. But given this admission (Khazanova has been similarly upfront about it in promotional interviews), the absence of Marienbad, Resnais, or screenwriter Alain Robbe-Grillet from Middleground’s credits is rather inexplicable.

The film opens with a woman (Khazanova) and her businessman husband (Chris Beetem) dining in an empty, anonymous hotel restaurant. As he passive-aggressively criticizes her over perceived transgressions (smoking in the car, not reminding him to call clients, etc.), she appears bored and aloof. Their relationship is immediately characterized by an odd formality and a distinct lack of passion. After her husband excuses herself, a man (Noah Huntley; as in Last Year at Marienbad, the central characters remain nameless) takes his seat and begins talking to her with a friendly familiarity, though she insists they have never met. This scene recurs the following evening, when it becomes clear that the woman is charmed by this strange man and might even be starting to believe that they previously had a relationship she cannot quite recall. As days (weeks?) pass, their relationship grows, flashbacks intermingle with the present until the timeline is irreparably fragmented, characters alternate roles, and the woman ultimately seems to awaken from her fugue state and approach a previously unpossessed agency.

middlegroundMiddleground marks the directorial debut of Alisa Khazanova, an actress perhaps best known for her roles in the Nikolai Khomeriki’s Tale in the Darkness (Skazka pro temnotu, 2009) and the 2012 remake of British Hammer Horror film The Woman in Black. While riffing on one of world cinema’s most respected and notoriously difficult films may seem like a foolhardy decision for a novice director, Khazanova brings to the project a nimble energy (it clocks in at a brief 74 minutes) and a welcome sense of humor. Writing about Last Year at Marienbad, Pauline Kael mused: “Surely conversation about whether people met before at Frederiksbad or Marienbad or Baden-Salsa can only be a parody of wealthy indolence—but is the film supposed to be comic? Probably not, but it’s always on the edge—so the effect is ludicrous” (Kael 1965: 186). Khazanova and Kupisk, apparently of the same mind as Kael, overtly satirize yuppie culture and male narcissism in general. Extended scenes of the man and woman dining together with his co-workers feel imported from a separate movie, one more accessible and conventional but also more surefooted. Throwaway lines like “He’s a nice guy, but how is that going to supplement my income?” and “I’m gonna destroy this place online” (said in response to a chipped wine glass) may target low-hanging fruit, but they serve to ground the film’s metaphysical framework in a recognizable modern reality.

As for toxic masculinity, the romantic intrigue of the plot is cleverly subverted by the decision to make the mystery man only slightly less obnoxious than the petulant husband. Dashingly handsome, spontaneous and witty, he is presented as the clearly more desirable alternative to the neurotic bully, but he is also overbearing in his own way: overconfident, entitled, and prone to dominating every conversation. Even when her attraction to him is obvious, she is hardly able to get a word in edgewise when they are together. Self-actualization is impossible while coupled to either of these men, and tellingly, the film ends not with confirmation of the woman’s coupling with the second man (like most things in the film, it remains ambiguous), but with the husband’s apparent abandonment.

middlegroundLess successful is the rote exploration of themes of identity, time, and memory, which it borrows wholesale from Marienbad without the distinct authorial voice or high production values that might render them freshly challenging. Khazanova proves to be less adept at surrealism than comedy. A scene in which the woman finds a wheelchair-bound old woman reciting T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is too on-the-nose to achieve the intended dreamlike quality of the encounter (“Time for you and time for me, / And time yet for a hundred indecisions, / And for a hundred visions and revisions”). Similarly, a dinner conversation late in the film about the phenomena of déjà vu and jamais vu too neatly articulates ideas that have already been made evident by that point.

According to Khazanova, Middleground was filmed in New York City primarily because producer Ilya Stewart suggested that it would be relatively inexpensive—the screenplay was written in English, so local unionized actors and crew could be hired (Maliukova 2017). Though the low budget is evident from the tele-visual quality of the digital cinematography, the shooting location was shrewdly chosen. In contrast with Last Year at Marienbad’s gorgeous rococo palaces, the restaurant and hotel here are as anonymously upscale and interchangeable as the guests populating them. Tastefully minimal beige and white bedrooms and harsh fluorescent hallway lights effectively convey the woman’s estrangement from her surroundings and create a more insidiously banal existential limbo than that of Resnais.

This estrangement is further enhanced by Khazanova’s casting of herself in the central role among American co-stars. Perfectly fluent in English but speaking with an accent neither identifiably Russian or French (her second language) and possessing equal amounts of strength and fragility that betray her previous career as a ballerina, she is utterly convincing as an alien presence even before the setting is established. Khazanova the lead actor proves to be Khazanova the director’s greatest asset, a captivating and emotionally transparent guide through a dreamscape in search of its own identity.

Dane Reighard
University of California-Los Angeles

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Works Cited

Kael, Pauline. 1965. “The Come-Dressed-As-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties.” In I Lost It at the Movies. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Maliukova, Larisa. 2017. “Alisa Khazanova: Govoriat zhe—aktrisa so slozhnym litsom. Eto ia.” Novaia gazeta 2 November.

Middleground, USA/Russia, 2017
Color, 74 minutes
Director: Alisa Khazanova
Screenplay: Alisa Khazanova, Michael Kupisk
Cinematographer: Fedor Lyass
Production Design: Ekaterina Scheglova
Music: Igor Vdovin
Producers: Ilya Stewart, Alisa Khazanova, Roman Volobuev, Claudio Bellante
Cast: Alisa Khazanova, Chris Beetem, Noah Huntley, Rob Campbell, Marisa Ryan, Nika Pappas, Daniel Raymont, Michael Kupisk, Barbara Kingsley, Amaya Bailey Press

Alisa Khazanova: Middleground (Oskolki, 2017)

reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2018

Updated: 2018