Ethical non-monogamy doesn’t make for great dramatic conflict. Maybe that’s why alternative relationship structures such as polyamory are so rarely depicted onscreen. Where would we be if scripts couldn’t rely on torrid affairs or public marriage proposals for quotable monologues and heated arguments? If anything goes, what would people fight about?
Turns out, quite a lot. But it’s not guaranteed to be any more compelling than the status quo. Though it boasts a picturesque setting and elegant shooting style, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” flounders under the weight of romantic drama cliches, even as it valiantly seeks to upend others.
Set on a sun-soaked vineyard in the South of France, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” embraces the arrival of a third person into a marriage, resisting the unconventional set-up as a dramatic flashpoint. The tension stems instead from two women re-hashing an unresolved relationship, and a man playing semi-neutral observer with his own motives. Unfortunately, the film is so intent on normalizing non-monogamy that it ends up playing like any other relationship drama, and a fairly wooden one at that. It’s far more interesting as an exploration of creative blocks and the ethics of chasing a muse, but unfortunately the script struggles to articulate these things while spelling out others too loudly.
The exciting discovery in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” is lead Idella Johnson, who imbues jazz singer Bertie with her captivating presence and soulful voice. Bertie and her dashing husband Fred (Lucien Guignard) have left New Orleans for Southern France, where they’ve been living in his family’s gorgeous country villa. Their band had developed a devoted following, though we rarely hear them play, until Bertie’s sudden six-month bout of stage fright. Anxious to fix Bertie’s issue before an upcoming tour, Fred invites Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham) for a visit that turns out to be a not-so-welcome surprise.
Though Fred calls Lane “our ex,” Lane later explains that she only ever had a relationship with Bertie. Writer-director Marion Hill reveals information about the entanglements without much fanfare, careful not to sensationalize the poly-ness of it all. In a refreshing twist, Fred is giddy to see Lane and disappointed when Bertie isn’t. He desperately wants them to get back together because, as he tells Bertie, “You’re different when Lane’s here.” They cut a sweet double figure in the kitchen, slicing and prepping in concert with nary a word between them. The effect is more on the nose when they wear the same outfit to a party — white shirt, blue blazer, knee-length shorts.
The chemistry between Lane and Bertie is far less familiar, which works for the first act but doesn’t abate by the third. In an unfortunate waste of Johnson’s charms, Bertie spends most of the film mad at Lane — for disappearing, for bringing her sleeping pills, for sleeping with flirtatious Israeli Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon). Lane is similarly caught up in her tortured pursuit of Bertie, which she toggles between describing as “obsession” or “addiction.” For all of the film’s obvious romantic trappings — a golden bike ride on country roads, fish-shopping at the market in broken French — the central couple is kind of a downer.
As the film slowly progresses, not much has materialized beyond two people rehashing why they broke up. By the time Fred says Bertie “hasn’t sung like she sung last night since you left, and I know I will never have that effect on her,” it’s obvious the film is straining against the limits of the script. Bertie and Lane’s final confrontation delivers fewer questions than answers, wrapping things up with such a hearty shrug that it’s hard to enjoy the artfully staged sex scene.
Hill seems so averse to calling attention to the struggles of polyamory that the characters shy away from any real conflict. Instead, she skirts around the issue, injecting subtle jibes without fully addressing what makes her premise unique. From the way Lane ribs Bertie for getting married and the exasperated looks Bertie shoots at Noa, it seems both have concerns about non-monogamy. These conversations don’t ever come to a head, however fruitful that might have been.
Hill need only point the camera at the stunning landscape to evoke the “Call Me By Your Name” feel of the surroundings, which cinematographer Lauren Guiteras captures in gorgeous detail. Guiteras has a keen and nimble eye, often framing Bertie slightly too low of center in the bath, or through the double layered glass of a corner window. Unfortunately, there’s more being said with these choices than with what’s on the page.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT section. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.