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The Line (La Ligne)

A painted line separates mother and daughter in this touching French-Swiss domestic drama — live from Berlin Film Festival.


The distance between mother and daughter is represented quite literally in The Line, with a 100 metre painted border separating Margaret (Stéphanie Blanchoud) from her mother Cristina (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). The line, created by her younger sister Marion (Elli Spagnolo), is a last-ditch resort to stop the perennially angry Margaret from hurting her mother again.

It’s a film that starts in exaggerated fury, women chasing each other across a room in slow-motion to opera music. It doesn’t matter what set Margaret off: everything sets her off, with physical violence her first resort when she feels she can’t win an argument. She is given a restraining order. She repeatedly ignores it. Hence the line, both physical necessity and apt metaphor.

While the premise might seem absurd, it never stretches the bounds of plausibility. This is because, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every family is absurd in its own way. Ursula Meier’s Swiss-French drama is highly attuned to the neuroses and internal logic every family abides by in order to survive, crafting a touching exploration of mother-daughter relationships and the difficulty of seeing eye-to-eye.

The focal point is Marion. She might be the youngest in the family, but she possesses a steely resolve, aided by God, that makes her the ultimate go-between, standing on the line outside their house like a friendly border guard. Untouched by the neuroses that make up adult life, including Christina’s melodramatic, selfish nature, Margaret’s stress and their other sister Louise’s (India Hair) bad brokering skills, Marion has the kind of conviction only afforded by youth. Credit must go to Spagnolo, who holds her nerve excellently against veteran actors.

Using music as a through-line, whether it’s ex-concert pianist Cristina’s impending deafness, Margaret’s guitar skills or Marion’s choir-practice, the family bound together by both deafening highs and almighty lows, all in search of some kind of settled harmony. While the cinematography by regular Denis-collaborator Agnes Godard is mostly unshowy, the clean blocking and the occasional flourish help to elevate the material from being a mere actor’s showcase. So do the fine Swiss locations, adding mountain grandeur and rustic charm to the kind of story that could be set anywhere in the world.

But great music lingers not only in their harmonies and melodies, but also their cadences. The Line fails to wrap up its music and distance metaphor in a satisfying way; cross-cutting between different events and ending on a cliff-hanger just when they should finding a neat way to converge. Cliffhangers work best when you can resolve the chord yourself, but this diminished ending left me wanting a more satisfying and pleasing conclusion.

With that said, family isn’t a battle, it’s a war. Once the lines are drawn, it’s hard to put them away again. The Line shows this conflict in all its messy glory.

The Line just premiered in competition at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival, running from 10-20th February!

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