The intoxicating romantic drama “Ma Belle, My Beauty,” opening September 3 at the Landmark Ritz Five, features gorgeous people in the equally gorgeous south of France. (Most of the dialogue is in English, with occasional subtitles).
The first feature written and directed by Marion Hill (she/they), the film features queer, polyamorous, and bisexual characters caught in a love triangle. Lane (Hannah Pepper) arrives in France to surprise her ex, Bertie (Idella Johnson), who is currently married to Fred (Lucien Guignard). All three of them used to live and love together in New Orleans, but two years ago, Lane up and disappeared. Bertie and Fred moved to France soon after (their house belongs to Fred’s parents) and got married, much to Lane’s despair.
But the newlywed’s relationship has hit a snag. Fred is a musician whose band is about to go on tour, and he is irritated that Bertie, who used to sing with them, has not performed for six, possibly eight, months. When Lane and Fred reconnected, he hoped that Lane could motivate Bertie to join his upcoming tour. Lane, however, just wants to win Bertie back for herself.
These two narrative threads create the simple, simmering dramatic tension that eventually comes to a boil in “Ma Belle, My Beauty.” The story, which features the characters talking and eating, talking and drinking, and talking and having sex, may seem a bit slight, but Hill’s film engages as Fred, Bertie, and Lane each try to get what they want from the other.
The most interesting (and likable) character, of course, is Bertie, who is wary of Lane’s intentions, but also flustered by her presence. (Fred is a bit more transparent in Bertie’s eyes.) But watch the shifting dynamics — the way the characters glance at each other or carefully dance around a subject reveals much about them. When Bertie tells Fred, “I’m not getting back with her,” meaning Lane, she is most certainly trying to convince herself as much as her husband.
Hill’s film feels honest, because the writer-director lets the characters open up and breathe — like a good bottle of wine — allowing the viewer to understand everyone’s desires and motivations. When Fred is out at a rehearsal, Lane makes a move on Bertie. She doesn’t initially resist, but then she does, drawing a boundary that she hopes not to cross. The friction between the women is only slightly awkward, and Hill’s talent is to make viewers apprehensive but never uncomfortable as the women navigate their rekindled desires.
Things get a bit complicated, however, when the trio attend a party. Lane meets a fiery Israeli, Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon), and is instantly attracted to her. Meanwhile, Bertie performs a song (a marvelous moment), expressing her sense of independence and doing what she wants, when she wants, and on her own terms.
As Lane and Noa get to talking, Lane explains how she was once romantically involved with both Bertie and Fred and what their lives together were like. When Lane brings Noa back to the house for a night of passion, Bertie tries to be a gracious hostess the following morning, while quietly seething. A day trip to a river the next afternoon magnifies the sexual jealousy percolating under Bertie’s calm exterior.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” is best when Bertie and Lane each talk candidly about what they really want. And it is easy to become invested in their characters. Idella Johnson gives a terrific performance as Bertie, showing the emotional conflict of her situation — wanting to give into her desire, but also maintain her freedom. When she states that her happiness does not depend on Fred or Lane, it is an empowering moment. Hill wisely shows all three characters’ perspectives to illuminate what is at stake for each of them, but Bertie is the most sympathetic because she is not imposing her will on the others.
As Lane, Hannah Pepper gives a very unselfconscious performance. Her motivations may be selfish — she wants Bertie all to herself — but she feels directionless in life and knows being with Bertie was when she was at her best. Pepper is most expressive during her more reflective moments.
In support Lucien Guignard looks good cooking, playing music, and frolicking in a river.
Hill captures the rhythm of life in Southern France well. The scenes of the characters wandering the fields and quaint streets, shopping for food in the local market, preparing a meal, and consuming copious amounts of wine is relaxing. Moreover, it all set to a jaunty jazz score.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” may not have high stakes, but the way the relationships play out feels organic, and their shared history feels authentic. Hill’s film may not be deep, but it provides some keen insights about relationships. And it sure is gorgeous.