When Lane arrives at a train station in southern France in “Ma Belle, My Beauty,” she’s greeted by Fred. Clad in the casual uniform of late summer — shorts, sandals, a breezy cotton shirt — he gives her a little smile. Lane, on the other hand, looks from the start like something is weighing on her, and it’s not just her oversized backpack. “Do you think she’ll want to see me?” she asks, with a wary note and pensive brow. Turns out Fred is springing Lane on his wife in hopes of rekindling their threesome, not so much for himself as for wife Bertie.
While its polyamorous triangle might sound edgy to some, first-time feature director Marion Hill’s romantic drama — which had its world premiere at the Sundance film festival — was in line with other 2021 Sundance selections that depict underrepresented characters and their experiences by way of fairly traditional, if compelling, story craft. (“CODA” about the hearing daughter of deaf parents and “Wild Indian,” a dramatic thriller about an act of violence and its repercussions for two indigenous men were two of note.)
In this triangulated love story there is more roiling it than just desire. Although the central characters reflect the vast array of LGBTQ folk, the movie isn’t a coming-out tale. Hill, who makes her home in New Orleans, isn’t teasing or defending the Bertie-Lane-Fred arrangement, so much as letting their love and possibility play out within the hurts and joys — and logistics — of their own geometry. These characters are in the midst of their lives, with many of the duties and emotions that come with that.
As is turns out, Bertie is not entirely happy that Lane’s shown up. And Fred may actually want Lane there so that he and Bertie can get back to the business of making music. He’s a musician, she’s the singer in their jazz combo. And, as the movie opens, it’s clear that Bertie’s not feeling it. Hence the call to Lane.
As Bertie, Idella Johnson manages to capture a character who is comfortable in her skin but quietly mired in a mood. Her mother has died recently. And though it is not emphasized (writer-director Hill nicely eschews over-explaining), that loss, coupled with the fact that Bertie appears to be the only Black woman in the village, may be exacerbating her isolation. Lucien Guignard charms as Fred, the loose-limbed, appealingly feline free spirit who nevertheless takes seriously the creative and practical considerations that come with making a living as artists. He, Bertie and their band have a tour booked that looks in danger of falling apart. As Lane, Hannah Pepper is asked to do the film’s heaviest lifting — and a lot of running. Fred looks to Lane to be a catalyst of sorts, and the filmmaker positions her as something of a cipher. Why did she disappear two years earlier? What’s in it for her in return now?
If three is uneasy company, what happens when you add a fourth? Noa doesn’t make a quartet, but the sensual, sagacious painter and former soldier (Sivan Noam Shimon), visiting from Tel Aviv, tugs enough at Lane to budge the trio’s dynamic.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” is lovely, not least because it was filmed in and around the book-me-a-flight village of Anduze near the Cévennes mountains. Hill and cinematographer Lauren Guiteras seize the light in ways that suggest the unfolding dramas — while ouchy — are part and parcel of a life worth grabbing hold of. With its sun-dappled days, attractive farmhouse, fetching characters and at-the-ready bottles of red wine, the movie hints at Luca Guadagnino’s vexed idylls. Composer Mahmoud Chouki’s score — North African notes with shades of New Orleans jazz — buoys the overall mood without discounting the emotional stakes.
At one point, Noa asks Lane about her relationship with Bertie and Fred, adding a not uncommon observation: “I can’t imagine having two partners. It sounds like a lot of work.” Indeed. “Ma Belle, My Beauty” suggests that making up (or breaking up) with those two partners is no cake walk either.