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Before I knew the word polyamory, I knew French cinema. Some of the earliest examples of queerness I saw on-screen were in French movies about throuples where the queerness was secondary. Movies like Jules and Jim, Les Biches, and The Dreamers presented throuples where heterosexuality was prioritized but not exclusive. And my baby queer-self latched onto these works and their suggestion of alternate relationships — no matter how flawed.
I can imagine a version of Marion Hill’s debut feature Ma Belle, My Beauty reminiscent of those films — a version where the man and heterosexuality are prioritized and the queerness is secondary. Thankfully, this is not that version. In fact, in this film, the man is something of an afterthought.
Ma Belle, My Beauty is about an American woman named Bertie (Idella Johnson) who has recently moved to a villa in the south of France with her French husband, Fred (Lucien Guignard). She’s a singer, but lately she’s stopped singing. Her French is bad and she feels totally isolated — she spends her days drifting around their broken pool, her nights awake in solitude. Desperate to pull her out of this depression, Fred invites Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), the former third member of their relationship, to the villa. Bertie doesn’t know about this invitation and Lane’s arrival forces them all to confront the past.
This movie doesn’t just take place in the south of France. It Takes Place In The South Of France. Lauren Guiteras’ cinematography is lush as she captures the beautiful scenery, the beautiful actors, and the endless barrage of sensory pleasures. Wine and cheese and olives and fish are captured with an artistry beyond what you’d even find in a prestige cooking show. Regardless of how you feel about the characters and their conflicts, simply getting to live in this well-realized setting is such a treat.
The actors have an easy energy with one another that honors their character’s complicated past and the details of their relationships are revealed with a nice subtlety. The movie works best when the film’s central women are playing power games with one another — each trying to win the desire of the other while pretending they couldn’t care less. All the while Fred is just sort of floating around totally confused with what his wife wants or how they can proceed with their life. Again, this is not about him. Even if they are in his parents’ house.
The power struggle between Lane and Bertie eventually manifests in the film’s most frustrating aspect. At a party, feeling rejected by Bertie, Lane begins a flirtation with an Israeli woman named Noa. Bertie mentions that Noa was in the IDF and served longer than she had to — she then asks if Lane is still doing anti-occupation work and/or boycotting a certain brand of hummus. Lane doesn’t really give an answer nor does she let whatever “politics” she has get in the way of her new crush.
Noa is played by Sivan Noam Shimon who some of you might recognize from the queer coming-of-age movie Blush. Like in that film, Shimon has a captivating on-screen presence and I understand why Hill wanted to cast her. But the movie’s lack of clarity around her character leaves it politically and emotionally muddled. It’s not that Lane’s absence of moral fortitude is unrealistic per say, but it certainly didn’t endear me to her. It also never felt clear if Hill wanted me to see Lane’s interest in Noa as a betrayal of values born out of insecurity and desperation, or if that was just me projecting my own beliefs. I kept feeling like, damn I’ve made some mistakes in my life but at least I never got so sad about my ex that I fucked someone in the IDF. And maybe that’s how I was supposed to feel! It certainly would fit Lane’s flawed character. But, if that’s the case, I wish it was clearer and that the subject matter was handled with the seriousness it deserves.
But Noa’s arrival does shake up Lane and Bertie’s relationship adding a fourth to the already complicated three. It’s here the film shows the endless possibilities of a cinema truly open to polyamory. Love triangles — love quadrangles — are so much more delicious when multiple people can be involved. Yes, we need more bisexual and polyamorous representation for political reasons, but we also need it for better stories!
This is very clearly a movie made by a queer person. That’s evident in the relationship dynamics and the costuming, the casting and the gaze. Look, when a character takes a strap-on out of her backpack in the middle of a sex scene you know you’re in good hands. It’s that authenticity that elevates the film.
Authentic stories about polyamorous relationships are still all too rare, especially ones that prioritize the experiences of queer women and non-binary people, especially ones with a queer Black woman protagonist. So while the film is not without its flaws and missteps, it’s hard not to be grateful to enter its world of sex and feelings and food and nature. I’m proud to say that despite not leaving my house for a year I’ve still managed to create my fair share of dyke drama. But none of it happened in the south of France! And it looks way more fun in the south of France!