When developing films like 2008’s “Home” and 2012’s “Sister,” French-Swiss director Ursula Meier began by focusing on geography, imaging what stories may spring from a forgotten stretch of highway or how a remote mountaintop might shape the lives of those living upon it. But when she began work on “The Line,” which premiered on Friday at the Berlin Film Festival, the filmmaker had a different terrain in mind.
“The setting for this film would be the character’s body,” Meier tells Variety. “I wanted to follow a series of old scars that would retrace a troubled past, so that landscape would be the body itself and the story would be one of violence.”
Indeed, violence was what drew Meier and the film’s co-writer and lead actor Stéphanie Blanchoud to the project. “We wanted to examine a violent woman,” Meier says. “The project really started from a shared observation that in cinema violent characters are young girls, or explored through the prism of drug addiction. [We wanted to change that,] so we began work on a film about a 35-year-old woman who is unable to express herself without losing control.”
Together Meier and Blanchoud, who had trained in boxing for a play that she wrote, forged the latter’s character, Margaret, by focusing on her body. “We worked on her movements, on how she would walk,” the director explains. “We did make-up sessions and covered Stephanie’s face up with scars, and then used those photos when writing the script.” What emerged was a character with something electric inside her, full of steam and ready to pop.
And pop off Margaret does, lunging at her mother, played by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, in a lacerating attack that opens the film. That attack would set the stage for all that would follow, both onscreen and behind the camera. “I asked that we start the first day of shooting with this scene,” Meier says. “I wanted everyone to set the cursor of violence on such a visceral level so that it would pass through us, because [the incident] is like a waking nightmare, like a big bang whose waves would have to reverberate throughout.”
As result of her attack, Margaret is forced to keep at least 100 meters from her family home, but the character continually hovers along that legally imposed threshold in order to keep in contact with her younger sister Marion (newcomer Elli Spagnolo). Which gave the filmmaker a different set of spatial constraints to consider.
“I wanted to take this law of distance seriously,” Meier says. “To play the game as well. My cinematographer and I scouted locations like land surveyors, asking ourselves, 100 meters from this point, what does that give? And that changed the camera work, the framing, and the sets. We asked ourselves, when should we enter the house and when not to? We really worked on distance.”
When the Meier’s camera does make its way past the 100-meter threshold, it does so following the young Marion, a character whose narrative role grows as the film goes on. For the filmmakers, this was also new territory to explore. “One of the wagers of the film was to make one character disappear and let another take over,” Meier says. “So it was important to find the right young actress, someone with strength, grace, and purity, but who could also be tough.”
They found their Marion in Elli Spagnolo, a 13-year-old who had never acted onscreen before. For Meier, who had launched the career of actor Kacey Mottet-Klein (recently seen in “Happening”) with her previous films, that was all the better. “It’s something I look for,” the filmmaker explains. “I love to film someone for the first time, to integrate them into a cast of more experienced actors. It creates a beautiful mixture, and I love to see how it affects each actor’s performance.”