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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!
I have a ticket to the second screening of this film at Sundance. Looking forward to it! I heard the soundtrack is great too.
It really is.
WAIT WHAT HANNAH PEPPER-CUNNINGHAM.
“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” is my new outlook, thanks
Just saw this: whew, complicated feelz!
Fred says his wife Bertie will never love him, or Lane, as much as her career. As much as that looks like Fred’s projection, at the time, at the end, it looks like he might be right.
“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”: but was that someone as cute AND Hot as Noa??? That Lane could, in that emotionally tormented/overpowering lust context, throw away her politics at that moment felt PERFECTLY REAL. [Side note: I have a gay male friend who believes that all womens’ (especially lesbians’) “criteria,” at the expense of lust, is just sexist socialization. And I answer back, essentially “Nuh-uh.” But I can see where criteria is less important, at times like these!]
TBH, I really didn’t like any of these characters, as well as that beautiful French countryside. I just wish, when Bertie asked Lane the first time “Why did you leave?” that she’d been as honest as she was at the end (after Bertie already decided she was leaving w/ Fred, on musical tour): “Because I want all of you.” [She left because she couldn’t take the throuple sitch.]
But the sex was great! Still waiting, all these decades after “Desert Hearts” to find a lesbian movie that has GREAT SEX *and* a GREAT LOVE STORY (Dammit, it always seems to be Either/Or…]
[Question I’d ask Marion Hill (director/auteur): Why did she give the movie such a non-descript name? Lucky I happened to read the caption for it, or I would never have set my DVR.]