For years now, director Ursula Meier has been interested in boundaries and the reasons we cross them. Her debut feature Strong Shoulders (2003) is about a young track-and-field athlete whose drive for excellence becomes a dangerous obsession. Her absurdist comedy Home (2008) focuses on a family living nearby a disused four-lane highway and how their sense of place is destroyed once the road is opened. Sister (2012) examines the connections between family obligation and criminality, and the fact that love sometimes entails transgression. And her not-widely-seen true crime drama Diary of my Mind (2018) is about the distinction between word and deed, and how the movement from one to the other shifts our ideas about responsibility and blame.
So in a certain respect, The Line is probably the film Meier has always been moving toward. Unfortunately, it is also her least creatively successful to date, a film that so aggressively literalizes its central metaphor that it removes the sense of latent threat that characterizes her best work. The titular line refers to a 100-meter restraining order imposed on Margaret (Stéphanie Blanchoud), a musician who has a problem with uncontrolled rage. In the film’s opening scene, which plays out in a kind of stylized, balletic slow-motion, Margaret is seen charging like a bull at her mother, Christina (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), while her sisters, brother-in-law, and stepfather struggle in vain to hold her back. She manages to connect, smacking her mother who then falls onto a piano, hitting her head.
The family home is a soft modern glass structure near the Alps, and once Margaret has been thrown out, we see her pounding on the windows to be let back in. These panes of glass are the artificial barriers between Margaret and her family, but once the restraining order is in place, the division is at once more abstract and more absolute, because it’s legally binding. In order to keep Margaret in her life, youngest sister Marion (Elli Spagnolo) measures out a 100-meter radius from the house and paints a blue circle across yards and streets, essentially making sure Margaret doesn’t violate her parole agreement. Meier organizes the entire film around this thick blue line, thereby separating public and private, legality and illegality, as well as inclusion or exclusion from the (literal) family circle.
The Line never provides any backstory for Margaret’s violence. We just hear that she has always had a problem with fighting and physical outbursts, and any larger psychological ramifications or explanations of this history (for instance, whether Margaret may be mentally ill) are simply ignored. This is only the most obvious failure of The Line, since Meier’s fixation on the landscape and its bright-line barrier does all the conceptual heavy lifting for what becomes a fairly pedestrian family dramedy.
The Line’s characterizations are stunted at the level of a sitcom, despite the fact that Meier’s tone suggests that we are supposed to be emotionally invested in the women’s frayed dynamics. Marion is a singer in a choir, and her burgeoning obsession with God and prayer is a personality tic that substitutes for a discernible personality. This is also the case for angry Margaret, sensible middle sister Louise (India Hair), and petty, narcissistic Christina. In fact, Bruni Tedeschi’s performance is rather jarring, in the sense that it strongly resembles Catherine O’Hara’s Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek, but played totally straight. There are intimations of maternal cruelty and neglect, since Christina blames her children for ending her promising career as a concert pianist. When Margaret’s blow to the head renders her mother deaf in one ear, we once again see The Line literalizing its metaphors, ushering all subtlety out the arena.
It might have seemed like a bold move for Meier to provide an in medias res snapshot of a toxic family environment, and so it’s possible that the decision not to flesh out any of the roiling emotional subtext was a strategy of some sort. But this omission clashes with The Line’s tendency to spell everything else out in 24-point bold type. The net result is a sense that nothing much is really at stake, that Margaret’s fury and Christina’s selfishness are mere contrivances that allow Meier to establish her big, absurd idea: a blue circle in the snow that keeps Margaret physically at bay, even as her larger influence is broadcast over the line and into the family unit. Marion, meanwhile, continues to find herself (again, literally) at the end of her tether. It’s all maddeningly simpleminded, and gives the impression that the very talented Meier has painted herself into a corner.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.