At the risk of over-generalizing about gender, a great many man-made movies build to climactic scenes of violence, whereas Ursula Meier’s “The Line” begins with a knock-down-drag-out fight and then spends the rest of its running time exploring the consequences.
That opening brawl is a doozy — a mother-daughter showdown that leaves 35-year-old Margaret (Stéphanie Blanchoud) with a nasty scar above her left eye and 50-something Christina (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) deaf in one ear — though the confrontation itself happens largely in our heads. We see a vase, sheet music and what looks like an entire record collection smashing against a wall. Then we see Margaret chasing her mom around a baby grand piano, a slow-motion slap and Christina’s face slamming hard against the ivory keys. Later, we will learn what triggered this altercation, but in the moment, the younger of the two women looks positively homicidal, as if she’s about to kill her mother, and the scene supplies more than enough tension to propel the remainder fo the film.
As with nearly all great drama, “The Line” is about conflict, although this particular narrative feels downright radical in the way it rejects aggression as an acceptable means of resolving problems. Rather, aggression is the problem, as Swiss director Meier (“Home,” “Sister”) sensitively focuses on whether a family with conflicts as deep as these can find a more reasonable strategy for working things out.
Margaret is no stranger to violence. She has a history of such outbursts, which have complicated the relationships with nearly everyone in her life. As a result of this latest attack on her mother, she’s hit with a restraining order and forbidden from going within 100 meters of the family home for three months. Almost immediately, Margaret returns to the scene, upsetting her two younger sisters — pregnant Louise (India Hair) and teenage Marion (Elli Spagnolo) — and picking a fresh fight with her stepfather (Eric Ruf).
Margaret’s behavior may seem extreme, but it’s hardly unrealistic. Meier depicts the woman’s agitation without judgment or diagnosis, allowing the other characters to reveal her tempestuous history in the way they treat her. Margaret had been living in her mother’s garage, but now, obliged to find temporary shelter elsewhere, she knocks on the door of ex-boyfriend Julian (Benjamin Biolay). He warily lets her move in, but insists on checking her knuckles at the door to make sure she hasn’t been fighting. Kid sister Marion continues to see Margaret, but paints a broad blue stripe on the ground — a literal line that can’t be crossed, unless she wants to wind up in prison.
Even so, Margaret is drawn like a magnet to her mother, hovering at the perimeter like an abandoned pet or some kind of stalker. She wants to apologize, but doesn’t realize that the fight affected her mother’s hearing. Meier invites a certain mystery by withholding details from specific characters — and the audience — forcing us to challenge and reevaluate our assumptions as the film unfolds. A former concert pianist who got pregnant at age 20 and switched to giving lessons in order to support her family, Christina must now abandon her music career entirely, on account of the ear injury. And yet, the more we learn about Christina, the less mature she seems to be, alternately encouraging and sabotaging her daughters’ musical careers. At one point, Christina disappears for a few days, then returns with a much younger lover, Hervé (Dali Benssalah).
Much as she conceived “Home” with Isabelle Huppert in mind, Meier wrote the part for Bruni Tedeschi, and the Italian-French star does a terrific job of playing the complexity of this selfish and often childlike character. As Marion, newcomer Spagnolo embodies a child forced into the tricky role of mediating between volatile family members, doing her best to manage all sides while putting herself in the position of being damaged most by the situation.
Meier’s humanism draws us in, but there’s no denying that Belgian actor-singer-playwright Blanchoud, who collaborated on the screenplay for “The Line,” is the reason this project proves so impactful. The director has worked with Blanchoud several times before, even overseeing the music video for her song “Décor,” a duet in which she squares off against her lover in a boxing ring. The performer may seem petite, but she brings an intense physicality to this role: With her close-cropped hair, wild eyes and “wife-beater”-style T-shirt, she projects an almost masculine energy, not unlike that of Agathe Rousselle in last year’s “Titane” (although “The Line” doesn’t make such a show of subverting gender codes).
Blanchoud’s performance is unpredictable enough that it’s impossible to anticipate whether or how mother and daughter might repair their differences. Late in the film, Meier and DP Agnès Godard orchestrate an iconic shot where Christina and her family (minus Margaret) are arranged in the empty lot beside the house, listening to one of her old piano recordings. It’s a moment of rare grace in a turbulent saga, shot from the same spot where Margaret has stood for much of the film. Blanchoud’s absence is profoundly felt in this scene, and we can’t help suspecting some violence may have occurred off-screen (there’s even spilt blood to suggest it). Is that the only way for this family to find calm? Or will the women responsible for this story succeed in suggesting another approach?