Ballerina-turned-actress Alisa Khazanova creates her own opportunity to lead a film in Middleground, a take on marital malaise suggesting that, even in an infinity of parallel universes, a boring person will probably continue to be boring. Glossily made and ambitious, the English-language Russian import sometimes seems like something that would have better odds on stage, where mannered, nearly content-free dialogue might play as a literary device. Here, it mostly makes one wish for better company.
The film opens in an empty restaurant whose sole customers, never identified by name, are a Husband (Chris Beetem) and Wife (Khazanova) who look to have about three hours left before they throw in the towel on the relationship. He needles her about her smoking in his fancy car; she practices her dead-eyed indifference; he leaves to attend to whatever business has brought them to this sleek hotel. Then a bearded Other Man (Noah Huntley) approaches the table, sits down across from Wife, and starts flirting as if the two have dined together before. They haven’t, as far as she knows. But have they?
High aspirations, low impact.
Khazanova and co-writer Michael Kupisk proceed to offer several variations on this scene, surrounding the couple with an increasing number of characters and competing conversations. Friends and business associates pile up in the restaurant, along with strangers and a pair of young women whose sole function is to have “legs for days” and get into a catfight the bartender uses to titillate his customers. That bartender will change roles — here he’s a host, then a customer, then a piano player — but everybody else seems stuck playing the same roles in the drama. That’s “role” as opposed to “character,” as the film doesn’t attempt to make any of these folks convincing humans.
Presumably, we’re meant to identify with Wife, who endures the self-importance and pettiness of her Husband, and who idles indifferently whenever he picks up the phone to take a call or walks to another table for a business meeting. But when we cut to scenes outside this restaurant, we see her spending days in bed flipping channels, or walking the halls aimlessly. If this were the tale of a woman who unwisely committed to a capitalist zombie and regretted her choices, presumably she’d attempt to explore the world beyond this generic hotel.
Khazanova offers atmospheric dream and memory sequences that owe most of what intrigue they have to an abstract electro-acoustic score by Igor Vdovin. As the iterations of her main scene continue, the film occasionally flirts with Lynchian altered states; but the flirtation gets even less far than the Other Man does with Wife in that first encounter. A couple of diverting ideas are scattered about — at one business dinner, a handful of colleagues stare at their phones and read numbers off in turn, reminding one of the placeholder generic dialogue scenes in Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis — but they’re far outnumbered by moments where the filmmakers seem to think observing the inanities of status-seeking nobodies is the same as saying something about them.
Production companies: Hype Film, IlCapo Films
Distributor: The Vladar Company
Cast: Alisa Khazanova, Chris Beetem, Noah Huntley, Rob Campbell
Director: Alisa Khazanova
Screenwriters: Alisa Khazanova, Michael Kupisk
Producers: Claudio Bellante, Alisa Khazanova, Ilya Stewart, Roman Volobuev
Executive producers: Fabrizio Conte, Mike Landry
Director of photography: Fedor Lyass
Production designer: Ekaterina Shcheglova
Costume designer: Missy DiPiero
Editor: Roman Volubuev
Composer: Igor Vdovin
Casting director: Stephanie Holbrook