The South of France’s gorgeous scenery, jazz music, and polyamorous lovers — all the trappings of a beautiful romantic drama (and some serious wanderlust). Writer/director Marion Hill’s feature directorial debut Ma Belle, My Beauty has all of those things in spades, but yet still somehow falls just short of the emotional connection needed for a memorable romantic drama. Ma Belle, My Beauty is the story of Bertie (Idella Johnson), Fred (Lucien Guignard), and Lane (Hannah Pepper), who once used to be in a polyamorous relationship years ago back in New Orleans. Since Bertie and Fred have left Lane behind, married, and moved to southern France, where they are jazz musicians, and Fred’s popularity is skyrocketing.
With an upcoming European tour coming up in the balance, Bertie has begun to question her place in the band and whether her heart is still performing after her mother’s passing. Adding complexity to the situation is that Bertie is a Black woman from America married to a European man, who sometimes feels out of place in a quiet, provencal French town. To bring back the “old” Bertie and get her out of her funk, Fred decides to surprise Bertie when Lane one day shows up unannounced at their doorstep.
When the film opens and Lane shows up at her door, we are left wondering what the relationship is between the three characters and Fred and, essentially, Lane’s motivations. Are they just old friends? Is Lane trying to rekindle an old flame? Will Bertie even be receptive to the idea or Fred’s intervention? Is Fred doing this for himself and his band, or is he really concerned about the well-being of his wife? As the days wear on, Fred’s relationship with Bertie somewhat fades into the background while Lane tries to take center stage and the two women grapple with their feelings.
Hill’s screenplay and story do a good job of shining a realistic and un-fetishized light on a queer relationship with the women are comfortable in their own skin and with their sexuality — viewers will definitely appreciate the honest representation. The complexity of the situation comes into play because it is a polyamorous relationship that is still taboo in today’s modern society. Is it really what the three still want? This is where the story’s tension really lies for Bertie and Lane, and they alone, must figure out what they really want from this relationship and what they are willing to give up.
Shot on location in a small town outside of Anduze in southern France, the film’s locale really shines through — it is almost like the town itself, and its people are yet another character in the film (which definitely inspired some wanderlust — especially in a time of lockdown). Just the visuals alone are enough to make you want to relish Ma Belle, My Beauty — kudos to director of photography Lauren Guiteres. But it is in the execution of the story that the film falters somewhat. First, it feels as if something is missing amongst the cast’s chemistry, for the most part — that spark is never really believed. Sure, we understand that these two are reunited after Lane disappeared without even a goodbye two years ago, but we’re just not buying it.
Lane definitely has more of a connection with Noa (who is supposed to be the type of girl she wouldn’t go for), who shows up later in the film to stir the pot. There are times when it feels like Johnson is holding back from fully embracing Bertie’s character. While there are moments when she really shines (like when she gives an emotional, impromptu song performance at a party), other times we are left lacking. There are times when we feel the same about Pepper’s performance.
Secondly, there wasn’t enough of a foundation of their backstory to emotionally connect with the characters. At times, the viewer is left questioning why Bertie and Fred ever married because the connection between the two never seemed fully realized. Also, the addition of Bertie still dealing with the loss of her mother seemed, ultimately, unnecessary to the advancement storyline — just feeling somewhat out of place or like she has just been relegated to “Fred’s wife who sings in the band” was enough to serve as the catalyst for her change in mood. There are other scenes in the film that also seemed a little superfluous, like the interaction with the housekeeper that Fred asked to sing in his band, the way the scene plays out, it seems like this could blow up down the road or at least cause a little friction — but alas, she’s never seen again, nor does Bertie ever find out about it.
As a lifelong musician, Hill’s love for music clearly shines through in this film. It is almost like music is yet another character. It is at the heart of the story — finding your voice again, and the music in Ma Belle, My Beauty is great. But oftentimes, the beautiful music overpowers and outshines the scene and what is happening within. The music/score of a film should complement, not distract, unless it is completely intentional. There are several scenes in this film where the music is too loud or too busy or just didn’t fit the scene’s mood, and some scenes linger on a little too long. But if the soundtrack for this is made available, it’s definitely worth a listen, and composer Mahmoud Chouki should definitely be commended for his work. But in the end, this small execution and story problems add up and detract from what has the potential to be a refreshing and memorable romantic drama. Premiering in the next category at Sundance, Ma Belle, My Beauty is a decent feature directorial debut by Hill. Sure there are some flaws, but this film shows that Hill has a unique perspective and a fresh voice that she can bring to the world.