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Sundance 2021 Review: Ma Belle, My Beauty – “Benefits from the stunning surroundings of rural France”

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(L-R) Idella Johnson, Sivan Noam Shimon, Hannah Pepper in Ma Belle, My Beauty

Ma Belle, My Beauty explores a type of relationship not often depicted in film – polyamory.  These intimate relationships between more than one partner are typically neither deeply explored nor represented on screen.  In fact, one of my only memories seeing one that did not lean heavily on the erotic or comedic was in 2017’s Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.  Yes, that film had its degree of sexual portrayal, but at its core, it was about three people falling in love.  In Ma Belle, My Beauty, writer/director Marion Hill‘s debut feature, she aims to provide an intimate look into a polyamorous relationship that has fallen apart, and the emotional toll that has taken.

We meet Bertie (Idella Johnson) practicing a song, singing something that she isn’t artistically connecting to alongside her husband Fred (Lucien Guignard) who is playing guitar.  She quits their rehearsal saying she doesn’t like the song and it’s clear that this isn’t the first time.  Fred was supposed to be heading on a huge European tour with his band, Bertie singing the lead, but now that gig is in jeopardy.  Bertie spends most of her days puttering around the large farmhouse, lounging in its pool reading Jane Eyre or shopping in the market of the nearby village.  She seems in stasis, withdrawn from her surroundings.

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However, Fred has a surprise for Bertie, one day picking up a woman, Lane (Hannah Pepper), at the train station and bringing her back home.  While it isn’t initially abundantly clear what their relationship is to one another, there is a nervous tension between the two women that is palpable.  Through slowly unfolding information we learn that the three had been in a polyamorous relationship some time ago while living in New Orleans.  Hoping to do something to bring Bertie out of her depression and creative slump, Fred had thought Lane’s presence would inject new energy into their lives.  But the dynamic has changed, and jealousies and truth about Bertie, Lane and Fred’s relationship are about to surface.

Bringing the complexity of a polyamorous relationship to the screen was a large part of Marion Hill’s focus.  These women’s sexual identities were already established, meaning that Hill could instead spend time exploring the intricacies of the relationship, what drew them to one another and ultimately pushed them apart.  While Fred is certainly part of the equation, it is Bertie and Lane who are the focus here, yet it is hard to yearn for reconciliation between the parties.  The truth of their relationship unfolds so slowly that the film never really gives the audience time to know who they were in happier times, no reference point as to how things have deteriorated nor the life that they shared.  It made for a lack of investment on my part.

While the three main leads do good work here, especially Idella Johnson who is one to watch (and listen to! She has an incredible voice), their characters never really feel passionate towards one another.  While Fred tries to support his wife he places that burden mostly on Lane’s shoulders and, we simply watch Bertie take everything she needs from Lane, and Lane slowly realize her damaging addiction to Bertie and how it affects her life.  The scenes between the three feel a little lacking, making it hard to believe that they were ever deeply in love, a time again where some reference would have benefited this now dysfunctional relationship.

Ma Belle, My Beauty benefits from the stunning surroundings of rural France, set to a lovely Spanish guitar-heavy score by Mahmoud Chouki.  In a year when travel has been minimal, this film transported me out of my living room and into the rolling vineyards in the hills, the cobblestone streets of the town and the chateaus that pepper the French countryside.  Also, for someone who is almost finished “Dry January” there was also a substantive amount of incredible looking French wine on display to test my will-power.  But as beautiful as the film is, shooting in a town where the director spent much of her childhood, there just wasn’t enough of a compelling story to take my attention away from how immersive these surroundings were.  My memories of this film will be for France and its culture, not for the ambitious polyamorous story that was meant to be at its centre.

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