In the feature debut of filmmaker Marion Hill, the familiar outline of a conventional romantic drama is worked around the subject of an unconventional romance. Ma Belle, My Beauty centers on ex-polyamorous lovers who, due to the natural hardships that come along with love and life and the cruel hands of time, have been pulled in opposing directions.
Buoyed by a rich, dreamy atmosphere — cultivated in no small part by cinematographer Lauren Guiteras — and commendable performances, the film would seem prime real estate to offer a unique look at a less-represented lifestyle in an equally individualistic way. But Ma Belle, My Beauty lacks the substance and innovation within its story and characters to break free from its own narrative trappings.
Somewhere in southern France, Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Fred (Lucien Guignard) live an idyllic life. At their stately countryside home, they cultivate their own crops, make their own wine, play music, host colorful friends, swim in their (rapidly leaking) pool, and venture into the local village to play shows together as husband and wife. Since leaving their home in New Orleans, the newlyweds had been spending most of their time practicing to go on tour, but then Bertie fell into a creative funk.
In an attempt to shake his wife from her artist’s block, Fred invites an old friend to visit without her knowledge. More than a friend, actually. Lane (Hannah Pepper) was once the couple’s polyamorous partner, and Fred believes she can reignite Bertie’s passion for music. Instead, her sudden appearance stirs up conflicting feelings. At first, Bertie is pleased to see Lane, but she also still harbors bitterness towards her for having left the throuple relationship when it became clear that Lane wanted more than Bertie could give.
Bertie oscillates between feeling grateful for and resentful of Lane’s arrival. She eventually becomes resentful of Fred as well, for placing Lane back into their life on a whim, more-so for his own creative ends than for Bertie’s. The film navigates Bertie and Lane’s relationship, as well as Bertie’s relationship with Fred and their hosting of Lane, through the ins and outs of their seemingly serene country life, attempting to work through these unresolved sentiments and hostilities while Bertie tries to regain her creative groove.
Ma Belle My Beauty is an overwhelmingly agreeable film to hang out with, but its insistence on maintaining this sort of placid serenity without expounding upon its simplistic narrative and characters leaves much to be desired. Hitting beats that generate plot predictability, the complexities of these characters and their non-traditional relationship are left in the lurch in favor of gold-tinged scenery and narrative accessibility for the most general of audiences. Seeing these people in this kind of relationship in a different story, one that doesn’t curtail the potential ugliness or even inaccessibility of their entanglement, would be much more fulfilling.
Fred is mostly sidelined in the relationship in favor of building up the intimacy between Bertie and Lane primarily. The issue is explained away towards the end of the film through the detail that Lane was never actually sexually or romantically involved with Fred when they were all together. There is an overwhelming feeling of the film merely scratching the surface of the depth that this relationship has to offer. Fred, as involved in his music as he is, does truly want the woman he loves to be joyful and inspired again.
Similarly, as Lane expresses to her sexual fling, Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon), although she did not love Fred romantically, she did love being with someone who loved Bertie as well. Despite these fleeting moments, there is still far too much focus placed on Bertie and Lane. What could have been a messier and more intricate story about the ecstasies and difficulties experienced when love is shared between three people is cast aside in favor of the easier route of still focusing on a one-on-one relationship.
In the end, Ma Belle My Beauty forges on through the usual highs and lows and tensions and passions of stories centered on reconnecting with a former lover, no different than those focused on monogamy. The film is burdened by a hesitancy to examine the relationship between Bertie, Lane, and Fred as a whole beyond this more monogamous viewpoint. While a bewitching film to gaze upon and certainly an easy one to sit through, it deserved to be a little more challenging, both for the characters and for the audience.