Losing Ground (1982)

Written and directed by Kathleen Collins

Much like the tension-filled marriage at its core, Losing Ground isn’t a smooth affair, but an uneven assembly of parts that’s nonetheless vibrant on the strength of what can hold together any relationship: the warmth of its characters and indelible moments to fall back on. 

Seret Scott is Sara, a college philosophy professor who enjoys tremendous respect (and perhaps a little romanticization) from her students. She’s authoritative and collected, maybe even a little aloof. At home, her life’s a little less organized. Her apartment’s an open workspace and the kingdom of Victor (Bill Gunn), her partner, and painter. He’s buoyant, giddy, but you get the sense his boyish charm doesn’t wash over Sara and sweep her away anymore, it simply turns to spray against her rocks. 

They decide to rent a place in upstate New York for the summer and get out of town a bit, and as the fresh air grants room for self-exploration, both move in different directions with their newfound freedom. The question is whether the ties that bind are strong enough? 

Collins’ script has its strengths and weaknesses. The good? Densely layered conversations about philosophical concepts that she weaves into the mire of domestic realities. It’s a compelling contrast. The bad? Surprisingly, the dialogue often wilts on the vine, especially when the supporting cast gets involved with our central duo. The flow isn’t quite there, it feels too much like individuals saying their lines and not conversing. 

Without written interactions, however, Collins’ artistry shines through. Be it Victor strolling around doing street sketches (he has a keen eye for the local women) or the movie production Sara gets involved with as she tries to break out her shell, the sequences where music and body language do the lifting are transportive and communicative, be it Victor’s wandering eye or Sara’s exploration of her sensuality and pursuit of the “ecstasy” that she’s been pursuing in dusty research as an academic until now. 

While the supporting cast doesn’t elevate Losing Ground, Scott does well, as  she gives life to a woman’s transformation and liberation from her funk. Opposite her, Gunn makes the most of a more straightforward journey familiar to middle-aged men who suddenly find temptation irresistible, and his physicality is engaging even if his line readings leave some to be desired. 

Both roles undergo a shift from verbal to non-verbal communication as Sara gets in touch with her own body while Victor loses control of his own, and both are up to the challenge of communicating the difference.   

Ultimately, it’s a story with sparkling moments that unfortunately shine brighter because they’re set against less lustrous passages that make up most of Losing Ground. It’s still a landmark piece of filmmaking, however, as the first feature film directed by a Black woman with an entirely black cast, and the result is an engaging story of opposing personalities bound by a wedding band and the perhaps inevitable confrontation between their ideals, where a few elevated and sensuous moments stick in the mind after. 

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