'Ma Belle, My Beauty': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Ma Belle, My Beauty
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
A promising but flawed first feature.

Marion Hill's jazzy feature debut, winner of the Audience Award in Sundance's NEXT sidebar, explores a Franco-American polyamorous relationship.

Love triangles seem to occur more often in the movies than in real life — unless I’ve been hanging out in all the wrong places. They are a convenient choice for storytellers looking for a piquant, offbeat way to dress up the green-eyed monster. There’s the thrill of the verboten but what often follows is the steep price at least one of the characters will have to pay for having entered into a liaison that’s more than a two-way street. Stories about three-way relationships — more than three seems entirely impossible, at least in the movies — often lure viewers into their web with the promise of liberating or kinky goings-on before things fall apart and a much more conventional sense of morality rears its ugly head.

It is thus refreshing to see a film like the France-set U.S. indie Ma Belle, My Beauty, which tries to grapple with the realities of a polyamorous relationship without selling the threesome’s arrangement as something beguilingly unconventional that’s only fun to watch when other people do it. It’s a shame then, that easy access to the material’s profound emotional authenticity is sometimes hampered by writer-director-editor Marion Hill’s storytelling inexperience. Still, this Sundance Next selection could find a home at festivals and should interest producers looking for bright new talents to nurture.

Gorgeous Bertie (Idella Johnson), from New Orleans, has recently married her beau, the French-speaking, Swiss-Spanish hunk Fred (Lucien Guignard, casually injecting a jocular sensuality into a character with the world’s least sexy name). Fred is a jazz musician with a band and Bertie is a singer. They used to tour the French Cevennes region where they have now moved into a countryside abode that looks like it could spawn several bestsellers from Americans who’d decide to resettle there. But no one here seems in the mood to write about how great the local cheeses are, despite a gratingly touristy couple of sequences at a local market.

Indeed, despite afternoons spent in the pool and evenings filled with apparently bottomless bottles of local wine — because, bien sur the house is surrounded by vineyards! — things aren’t exactly rosy. Bertie’s mother has recently passed. Her husband speaks English, so she’s making no effort to speak French with the mostly white, middle-aged locals. She's an increasingly isolated African-American woman adrift amid gorgeous foreign surroundings.

Then fellow New Orleans gal Lane (Hannah Pepper) suddenly shows up out of nowhere with her rucksack and a smile. It takes a while to work out that Fred has asked the woman Bertie had a relationship with at the same time as Fred did when they all lived in the States to come and visit them to see if her presence can help chase away Bertie’s blues.

The set-up is intriguing, and besides the various relationship and emotional issues, a fascinating thematic undercurrent about artistic inspiration, creative block and the way some people can be muses for others softly bubbles up. But Hill, credited not only as the sole screenwriter but also as her own editor, often seems too close to the material to facilitate audience understanding. Lane, who pops up out of nowhere after not having seen or spoken to Bertie or Fred for two years — during which they got married and moved to France — seems like a logical conduit for viewers who don’t know anything about the couple and their troubles either. But the film starts before Lane’s arrival, with the duo not getting along for reasons that remain unclear for too long, making it hard to immediately care for these mopey characters who clearly don’t want to talk about what’s really bothering them.

The exact function of the stunning Israeli ex-soldier Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon), who catches Lane’s eye at a party, is similarly unclear. Sparks fly immediately between the two women, amusingly turning Lane’s moral objection to buying a certain brand of hummus for political reasons into a delighted exclamation of “she spoke Hebrew to me while we had sex!” But it feels like the facile overriding of Lane’s principles when she meets someone hot might be indicative of the superficiality of all the characters; their behavior and thinking often feel like vague outlines that could easily change more than the somewhat clearer boundaries of semi-settled 30-somethings that might need to be renegotiated.

The acting from the central four actors is quite soulful, but we don’t get enough access to these characters' inner conflicts. Too often, the narrative’s configuration feels like an intriguing second draft instead of a ready-to-shoot script, something that someone with an external eye might help finesse into something truly captivating.

Lauren Guiteras' sun-dappled cinematography has a jazzy ease that compliments the film's overall laid-back vibe. And composer Mahmoud Chouki shows great versatility, blending French, Latin, New Orleans and North African rhythms into a musical melting pot that reflects how all these different characters are trying to come together in harmony.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
Production company: EFI Productions
Cast: Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper, Lucien Guignard, Sivan Noam Shimon
Writer-Director: Marion Hill
Producers: Ben Matheney, Kelsey Scult, Marion HillE
Executive producers: Gina Charbonnet, Marion Hill
Cinematography: Lauren Guiteras
Production design: Stephane Gilles-Pick
Editing: Marion Hill
Music: Mahmoud Chouki

In English, French, Spanish
93 minutes