Dysfunctional family dynamics and the malaise of Swiss suburbia were at the heart of director Ursula Meier’s first two features, Home (2008) and Sister (2012), and they very much form the crux of The Line (La Ligne), which follows an explosive mother-daughter relationship that begins with a bang and takes a while to settle down from there.
Starring Belgian musician and actress Stéphanie Blanchoud as a singer-songwriter who has a major bone to pick with her classical pianist mom, the film offers up intensly ripe performances that can sometimes go too far — especially in the case of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, who plays a manic woman in dire need of a powerful mood stabilizer.
Explosive but unsatisfying.
Indeed, the problem with Meier’s latest, despite the strong cast and solid direction, is that it explores the tense and thorny nature of blood ties without ever delving into the psychology of it all, often leaving us in the dark as to why the characters behave the way they do.
When you open your movie with a daughter smacking the bejesus out of her mommy, it would be nice to know why she did that. But the director, who co-wrote the script with Blanchoud and Antoine Jaccoud, seems to purposely avoids explanations as her film moves from one volatile event to another, and the result doesn’t fully convince.
Still, there are plenty of potent moments in this well-acted drama, which begins with Margaret (Blanchoud) going after Christina (Bruni Tedeschi) in a slow-motion fight sequence where dishes explode, faces get smacked, sheet music flies in the air and blood begins to flow.
The rest of the movie follows the aftermath of that vicious dispute, which leads to a restraining order against Margaret that forces her to stay a hundred meters away from her mom’s home. In order to preserve the boundary, her younger stepsister, Marion (the excellent Elli Spagnola), paints a pink circumference around the house that gives the film its title. The question is: Will Margaret cross a line she’s crossed many times before?
The eruptive personalities of Margaret and Christina add tension to the story, and Meier tries to show how they have a lot in common despite their glaring differences. Both are talented musicians, although Christina gave up her career as a concert pianist to raise her two daughters (the second one, Louise, is played by India Hair), settling down in a godforsaken corner of Switzerland to teach music at home, and clearly regretting every minute of it. Why she didn’t go to Geneva or another, more culturally vibrant city, where she and her children could possibly have thrived, is a question the film never bothers to address. (Another is what happened to the girls’ father, whom nobody ever mentions.)
Once Margaret understands she can no longer violate her mother’s safe space, she does her best to stay close with Marion, offering the girl singing lessons that she administers from across the family border. Meanwhile, Christina, who lost her hearing in one ear after the opening brawl, breaks up with Marion’s dad but soon finds love in the young Hervé (Dali Benssalah), resulting in several uncomfortable scenes where she cuddles up in front of the kids.
Bruni Tedeschi has never been the subtlest of actresses, but someone turned up her volume way too high on this production, making her character lose credibility. A sequence where Christina plays a solo for the last time before her piano gets shipped off is both touching and over-the-top: She’s so much of a drama queen that her emotions are constantly quashed by all the excess.
You have to accept these people for who they are, but Meier doesn’t give us enough to help us believe in them. As much as the idea of therapy as a cure-all can seem simplistic, these characters could certainly use it, and the fact that such an idea is never alluded to, or a sustained conversation never had about anything substantial, is frustrating.
Blanchoud, who’s a talented singer herself, makes Margaret both compelling and a bit of an enigma. She’s fighting a mother figure she both loves and loathes, trying to forge her own path, yet she’s incapable of coherently expressing herself outside of her music. As the film progresses, she learns how to control her anger, but again, we never know why, and the denouement sets her on a better path while leaving us mostly unsatisfied.
Working with cinematographer Agnès Godard and editor Nelly Quettier, both veterans of Claire Denis, Meier captures the abrasive mood swings against a gloomy backdrop of prefab homes and bland shopping centers, the Alps lingering majestically in the distance. Like her earlier films, The Line reveals a side of Switzerland far from the picturesque vistas you see in all the James Bond movies — a place where people struggle to get by and struggle with one another, and where home is rarely where the heart is.