Bertie (Idella Johnson) is not feeling like herself lately. She’s not sleeping too well. Her husband Fred (Lucien Guignard) has noticed her retreat. She’s no longer singing with him or his band. She’s aloof and detached. Not even the picturesque setting around them — they moved from New Orleans to an unbearably adorable villa in the South of France — can snap her back into her old self. Concerned, he plans for a surprise, a visit from Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), their ex. Yes: “their.” And that’s when Marion Hill’s Ma Belle, My Beauty upends whatever expectations you may have had about it.
Polyamory, after all, is rarely scrutinized with such care. There may be characters around the trio who are curious about their previous arrangement, but it’s tinged less with judgment than with earnest interest. Credit goes to Hill’s script, which focuses less on the logistics of Bertie, Fred and Lane’s shared relationship than with examining the complexities of their interactions in the present. This is a film that is neither interested nor invested in making its characters function as moving pieces in a Polyamory 101 course.
Instead, Hill is fascinated in exploring the burden of being everything to just one person. And perhaps even the joy of having someone be everything to you. As Bertie sings toward the end of the film, “We are one in my heart, in my soul, my everything.” But what does it mean to share a person? What are the benefits of sharing not just in their pleasures but in sharing away their pain? Is three a company or merely a crowd? The answers to these questions drive Ma Belle, My Beauty without the film ever feeling like a treatise on queer desire. Bertie may be stuck between the domesticity her life with Fred and Lane’s free-spirited sensibility but Hill keeps pushing us to wonder why she can’t find a balance between both choices.
What helps is how breezy the film feels and how idiosyncratic its characters are. Bertie’s dissatisfaction with her life with Fred in France is not simply tied to her missing Lane (who’d disappeared from their lives two years prior). Nor is it tied to feeling sidelined as just “Fred’s wife” when she performs alongside him, or even having difficulty navigating a small French town with some passable French. Or even finding herself adrift in a town with few queer women. Hill and Johnson make sure to afford Bertie the complexity she deserves; someone who can be self-aware enough to tell those who love her that her happiness is not tied to them yet who suffers when Lane openly flirts with a young woman she meets at a party and who can’t fathom why her husband dredged up such a recent wound.
Jealousy, in Hill’s leisurely drama, never tells the whole story. Her characters are well-versed in the roles they’d otherwise play (absent lover, jealous partner, unhappy wife). And they know better than to retreat into old-fashioned ideas about how desire and intimacy are often tied to ownership, wrapped in dated concepts of power imbalances. The interactions Johnson and Pepper-Cunningham bring to life are a delight to watch because both actresses bring a lived-in quality to their performances. These are women who know perhaps too much about the other. And they know how to play off beautifully against one another, at times flirtatious, at others censuring, at times indifferent and at others quite steamy, in fact.
That My Belle, My Beauty (its title already using language to create both a binary and a unit) plays out like both a romance and an anti-romance is one of its greatest assets. Yet with its leisurely pace, it never ceases to be entertaining. Lauren Guiteras’s sun-dappled cinematography and Mahmoud Chouki’s playful score do a lot to make Hill’s feature feel buoyant even when it’s tackling thorny conversations about why we love, who we love, and what we expect in return. The film more than lives up to its title, finding beauty in the messiness of growing up and growing apart.
My Belle, My Beauty premiered as a part of Sundance 2021, which runs until February 3.