Losing Ground starts unremarkably enough with a scene of Sarah Rogers (Seret Scott), a college professor of philosophy, lecturing on existentialism. The camera pans smoothly across the classroom as we see students in various states of engagement. Just from the reactions of the students and the ways that she is framed, it is clear that Sarah is desired for her mind instead of just her physical beauty. The rest of the film will explore this tension between body and mind and whether one can solely live at one extreme or another.
The film follows Sarah and her relationship with her carefree artist husband Victor (Bill Gunn). We are to see these two as opposites of each other, though they can connect with each other intellectually when they choose to. Kathleen Collins frames these two characters in striking ways so as to underline their differences. Whereas our first introduction to Sarah is in a typical university lecture hall, our first introduction to Victor is within a room with its walls painted in an unruly, vivid backdrop of mostly primary colors. Victor has such a big personality, reflected by this room, compared to Sarah’s relatively restrained one that she seems to be swallowed up by the room as she enters it.
“Nothing I do leads to ecstasy.” Collins has nearly all of her character speak in this highly arch dialogue, kind of like a Whit Stillman movie, except not suffocatingly White. It is a marvel how the actors, especially Scott and Gunn, make it their own. In Scott’s voice, she sounds stilted and almost robotic, as if she had read too many books and not talked to too many people. The irony of her thesis, an exploration of ecstasy, the highest form of unthinking joy, is only underlined in bold when contrasted with her behavior. We also get a hint that Sarah’s personality may result from her mother, who is as free-spirited and embarrassing as Sarah is restrained. One can easily manage a young Sarah having to make excuses for her mother’s eccentric behavior, such as talking a little too frankly about sex, and how this may have resulted in her restrained nature. Similar words in Gunn’s voice sound grandiloquent, yet Gunn is such a good actor that he can also make it sound natural, an extension of his character.
Despite Sarah’s seemingly buttoned down demeanor, Collins makes it clear that Sarah is not merely a creature of the mind. George, an enterprising film student, (Gary Bolling) wants to recruit Sarah to star in his short film, a modern, jazzy silent film on the “tragic mulatto” trope. Clearly, he sees something in her that would make her a perfect candidate to embody such a physical role in which her appearance would be her main form of expression. Sarah seems to see right through George, yet George sees right through her. Collins also chooses to make Sarah’s office into an oddly illuminated chamber, perhaps representing her rigid mind that sees the metaphysical through a very unique lens.
For a film that deals with heady, intellectual themes, there is a considerable amount of freedom and creativity as well. When Victor heads out in the neighborhood of their summer house, he roams the street looking for inspiration. Or is it sex? To Victor they seem to be one and the same as he approaches a group of women and asks one of them if he can paint her. The camera becomes handheld and Michael Minard’s score becomes playful. It seems odd that Collins is making the male gaze look fun and lively, yet the women whom Victor approaches seem to know exactly what Victor’s intentions are, despite his pretensions of artistic grandeur.
Losing Ground could be seen as a story of two people finding their ecstasy in very different ways with both methods having some degree of legitimacy. Sarah seeks to find her ecstasy in her educational accomplishments and research, whereas Victor finds his in the flesh. Both of their approaches betray a fundamental disregard of the other side of their humanity. Sarah does not realize until much later how she cuts off people and refuses to connect with them. More ironically, she cannot understand that her inability to connect with Victor is due to her solipsism. This film is daring in that it deigns to assign the woman some of the blame, though Victor definitely deserves more since he actively cheats on Sarah and disregards the emotional chaos that he incurs through his actions.
We see two incomplete people trying to complete themselves in ways that we know will never be successful and it’s not so much a tragedy as it is an insurmountable obstacle that will inspire lifelong frustration. To emphasize this frustration, Collins even ends the film on an ambiguous note in which Sarah seemingly gives into her id and lets jealousy overwhelm her in a pantomime of revenge. Is this just her surrender to her carnal side, or is this elaborate play actually her coming to terms with her desires?
It is safe to say that there are few films like Losing Ground. There are plenty of small movies set in the world of academia with White people in nearly all the roles. Focusing on the Black experience within this esoteric world opens up this film and this familiar story to so many possibilities. We get a glimpse of intellectualism that is allowed to thrive without having to wrestle constantly with a White majority. There have been many White films about mid-life crises and infidelity but few of them illustrate the dynamic between the partners as vividly as Losing Ground does. Seeing a Black woman of formidable intelligence and with huge insecurities is unfortunately quite rare in American cinema, but seeing one as well realized as Sarah is just a vivid reminder of how many fascinating stories are left to languish when White stories are given priority.