Polyamory is a subject that’s not often explored in mainstream films. While other films have touched on it — Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers spring readily to mind — few films have tackled the subject by name in such a frank and unassuming way as Marion Hill’s stirring feature debut, Ma Belle, My Beauty. Set against the idyllic backdrop of a country estate in the south of France, the film centers around two former lovers Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Lane (Hannah Pepper-Cunningham), who reunite for a weekend at the invitation of Fred (Lucien Guignard), Bertie’s new husband. The trio had once formed a polyamorous relationship, but Bertie’s engagement to Fred ultimately alienated Lane from the relationship, and their reunion threatens to both rekindle old passions and reopen old wounds.
It should be said that films about polyamory are typically more about love triangles than true polyamory, in which multiple partners are in equal relationships with each other as one unit. Ma Belle, My Beauty explores the breakup of one such trio, and while it suffers from some of the typical hiccups and lack of polish one may expect in a low-budget Sundance indie, Hill manages to lend the affair a striking sense of emotional honesty, thanks in no small part to the tender and honest performances of the women at the film’s center. While their relationship with Fred, a transient musician whose true love is music and the open road, remains somewhat underdeveloped, there’s something appealing (perhaps even poetic) about the fact that the man is the least interesting figure in this relationship, and that Bertie and Lane could possibly make a stronger pair on their own. Together with a jazzy score by Mahmoud Chouki, with its Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar riffs, the sunny locations create an indelible atmosphere, and Hill confronts the burning passions simmering beneath the surface with a sexual frankness that is explicit without being pornographic. That’s probably Ma Belle, My Beauty’s greatest strength: it takes a subject matter that’s still somewhat taboo in modern society and treats it with the dignity it deserves. It doesn’t quite stick the landing — the ending is somewhat unsatisfying given the gravity of the emotions on display — but real relationships often don’t give us satisfying endings either; things are left unsaid, promises unkept, desire unrequited. But the film closes on a note that is almost too opaque to have the necessary emotional impact. Ma Belle, My Beauty is a lovingly realized romantic confection that puts a multi-racial, bisexual polyamorous romance front and center without turning polyamory into some sort of exotic sexual tourist attraction, but it ultimately shies away from confronting the emotional ramifications of its plot head-on.