Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 27, 2023 5:07 pm 
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Violent femmes

Much as she conceived Home with Isabelle Huppert in mind and Sister for young Kacey Mottet Klein, Ursula Meier created the lead in The Line, her first feature in a decade, for Valeria Bruni Tedeschi. The Italian-French star plays a striking turn as a childish musician mother, a prima donna who poses as a martyr. The setting is the Swiss mountain suburbs again. The guiding theme returns to a sense of border lines and holding out as in the director's 2008 Home. The Line is an intense and uncomfortable in your face experience; it lacks the subtlety and fresh point of view of Sister, in fact is almost its opposite in many ways. But Jordan Mintzer is doubtless nonetheless right in identifying Meier's continuing themes, here as much as before, as "dysfunctional family dynamics and the malaise of Swiss suburbia."

The pre-title introduction of La Ligne is a slow-motion physical fight between violent adult daughter Margaret (composer-singer Stéphanie Blanchoud, who has collaborated with Meier before; contributed majorly to this character) and mother Christina (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), while family members look on or try to stop them. We never quite learn how this got started, but it becomes amply clear both women are dramatic and Margaret violent and overreactive. Glimpses of confused, suffering younger daughter Marion (Elli Spagnolo) show who may be the main character and the one most affected. Margaret emerges with a scarred and battered face, while Christina falls with one side of her head striking the keyboard of the house's baby grand piano. Next we see a judge pronounce a restraining order. Margaret may not come within 100 meters of Christina or the family house for three months; violation will lead to jail. This period notably will include Christmas, and Margaret will never accept it.

The environs of the house give the same sense of odd contrast we get in Sister of scroungy unattractive neighborhoods with mountain grandeur behind. One wishes sometimes for the piquant irony of siblings surviving on the edge of a rich ski resort in the other movie, but there's no such special social background here. The Line has too much emotional drama to leave room for an extensive social picture. What we do get is music, for this is a fascinatingly musical family, with musical cast members to play them.

Margaret's history of violence becomes clear in immediately violating the restraining order and picking a fight with her stepfather (Eric Ruf), and also in her deteriorated relationship, both affective and musical, with former collaborator-boyfriend Julien (an annoyed, put-upon-looking Benjamin Biolay) after he lets her come to stay with her again temporarily, since she must leave her mother's garage where she has been living. When Margaret and Julien do have a moment of reconciliation it's with both of them playing guitar and singing. When Margaret seems to have gotten it together again months later, this recovery is revealed in her performance of a beautiful opening song in a solo concert.

For teenage Marion, the family musical talent comes in the form of a beautiful soprano voice. But it must be continually trained or she will lose it. Christina spends time in the hospital. There she learns she has tinnitus and further damage, probably permanent. Though every time we see her play, she plays beautifully. She was a concert pianist and says she gave that up, on becoming pregnant at age twenty, and became only a teacher, to focus on raising her daughters: it's a perpetual guilt trip laid on her offspring. Now even more dramatically she declares her new disability means she will abandon music entirely. She has the baby grand taken away. But just before the movers take it off, she halts the process and, in a multicolored gown, climbs up on the trailer and plays, beautifully. It's all about the drama and the questionable martyrdom.

More focus in the film is on Marion and on Margaret, with a little on older, uncomplicated sibling Louise (India Hair), who's at first pregnant and then has twin daughters she nurses in tandem: Christina can't learn which is which. The "line" of the title is hand-limned before our eyes in light blue acrylic with a brush by Marion to keep Margaret safely at bay, a measure continually fragilel, since it's never sure Margaret won't cross the line in every sense again.

Since Christina stops giving voice lessons to Marion after her ear injury, Margaret must fill in, and these are The Line's most memorable moments, near the pale blue line, with the achingly pure voice and Marion often using an inhaler for little asthma attacks. The songs she practices are religious and she herself is drawn to the spiritual life, perhaps as a necessary stay against the confusion of her unruly family.

The discomfort of this constantly uneasy film is heightened one more way through the arrival of Hervé (Dali Benssalah), a new, inappropriately young boyfriend for Christina, who doesn't seem to fit in. Christina, who is emerging also as a bit of a cheapskate, gives him an ugly, outsized shirt for Christmas, showing she doesn't know quite who he is - nor does anyone else.

A dramatic highlight is Christmas Eve, when Margaret is there, above, shining a bright light down on the family window. It's all about discomfort again, he danger of impending violence, the awkwardness of this situation, now wondering if Margaret will be granted a temporary "truce" from her exclusion, and the unnaturalness of Christina's outsize ego, the generosity of the season inaccessible for her.

In the vivid, awkward intensity of The Line Ursula Meier shows herself still a distinctive filmmaker with her own milieu and themes. But despite good actors and the cinematography of Claire Denis regular Agnès Godard, this feels less special than the previous effort. It's an outsize but unflattering role for Bruni Tedeschi: she is better in Paolo Virzì's Human Capital, the film itself (and her performance) this time more impressive than convincing, as well as too much dialogue overly expository - where Sister showed instead of telling and crept up on you unawares. One hopes for more and better and sooner from this interesting French-Swiss filmmaker. Meanwhile, look for her Home, and especially for Sister/L'Enfant d'en haut, both featuring the remarkable Kacey Mottet Klein (also to be seen in Téchiné's Being 17 and other good roles.

The Line/La Ligne, 101 mins., debuted in the Berlinale Feb. 11, 2022, showing also at Istanbul, Angoulême, and many other festivals. It was released in France Jan. 22, 2022, receiving an AlloCiné press rating of 3.4 (68%). It has been reviewed favorably by Peter Bradshaw and Metacritic rating so far is 62%. Screened for this review at the Metrograph Theater, where it will have an exclusive one-week New York theatrical run starting March 31, 2023.

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