The 2021 Sundance award-winning feature “Ma Belle, My Beauty” from young writer-director Marion Hill is as close as one can get to a polyamorous take on the 2017 film “Call Me By Your Name.” The film charms viewers with picturesque European landscapes and a simple relationship-driven story that focuses on the characters’ internal dialogues. However, with bland writing and a central romance that feels uninspired, audiences are left wishing that Hill had leaned more into the complexities of the polyamorous plot.
Set in the south of France, the film focuses on newly married Louisianian couple Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Fred (Lucien Guignard), and this movie is certainly visually stunning, both in the ethereal scenery and striking faces on screen. At the onset of the feature, Hill is effective in her character development and world-building, pulling on a number of emotional strings to weave a cohesive story about the musical duo moving to the countryside after touring France together. Tension stems from Bertie, who is introduced as a brooding character, somber in the wake of grieving the recent loss of her mother while at the same time struggling to fit in as an English-speaking African American woman in this new white, French community.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” opens with Fred bringing home a backpack-ridden traveler named Lane (Hannah Pepper), revealed to be Bertie’s ex, in the hopes that she will draw Bertie out of her melancholy by both inspiring her to perform again amid her musical drought and bringing a level of lust and joy back into her relationship with Fred. It quickly becomes apparent that since Lane has been absent from the couple’s life for years, she is not welcomed by Bertie with open arms. Yet, the two women’s feelings for each other are not fully resolved, and as the plot unfolds, jealousy sparks as all three characters navigate their life reconciled.
One of the bigger disappointments in the film is the degree to which Hill misses the mark when it comes to the polyamorous relationship. Hill works so hard to create a script that doesn’t sensationalize a polyamorous relationship that the potential for deeper conflicts is zapped out of the narrative. There is no room for the relationship to breathe and no chance for nuances; this film could have broken ground, but instead, it fell flat.
Bertie, Lane and Fred also all pan out to be incredibly shallow, superficial characters that act solely for their own benefits, with no real signs of genuine love between any pair. There is a hint of sexual chemistry between Pepper and Johnson, but that is much more of a credit to the phenomenal work the actors do with the material they were given than it is to the story itself.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” owes a great deal of its excellence to cinematographer Lauren Guiteras and composer Mahmoud Chouki — the two responsible for the whimsical camera work that mirrors the lackadaisical summertime the narrative fosters and the lively jazzy score that compliments Johnson’s unmatched vocals. Between these two elements together, this movie becomes a visual and auditory master class in indie filmmaking. To make a movie about musicians with a full composition can be daunting, especially when you have actors singing on camera. However, in the moments when the script felt like it was only on its first or second draft, Guiteras and Chouki stepped up and told an absolutely stunning story that relied heavily on its beautiful landscapes and immersive pieces to keep audiences engaged.
While “Ma Belle, My Beauty” could have used better character shaping, it sheds light on an important aspect of the LGBTQ+ community that is seldom featured in the media. To highlight a polyamorous lesbian couple is a major step forward for the film community, and while Hill has a long way to go in learning how to develop these stories, these are the stories that need to be told to push the boundaries of filmmaking and challenge audiences worldwide.
Contact Chloe Forssell at [email protected].