Sundance 2021: “Ma Belle, My Beauty” is a sexy nothing

Ma Belle, Ma Beauty Ma Belle, Ma Beauty (Sundance)

The romantic drama is all beautiful, dreamy surface, and no depth.

Judged solely from the description in the Sundance Festival program notes, viewers may go into Ma Belle, My Beauty expecting a film that suggests what might have resulted if Eric Rohmer had decided to make a movie based on a letter to Penthouse Forum. That notion does sound intriguing, I suppose, but it’s a promise that writer-director Marion Hill’s debut feature cannot quite live up to in the end with her romantic melodrama that seems to have everything going for it except for an interesting story or characters that you give a damn about.

In the French countryside, newlywed musicians Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Fred (Lucien Guignard) are settling into their new lives after relocating from New Orleans but all is not as picture-perfect as it initially seems and not just because of the discovery in the opening scenes that their not-at-all-symbolic swimming pool is leaking water and requires extensive repairs. While Fred, who is originally from France, settles back into his groove easily, Bertie finds herself in the grips of a mild but persistent depression that has begun to affect her singing to the point where she cannot find the desire to do it. Since she and Fred are due to go out on a tour with their band pretty soon, this is a problem.

Bertie’s mood is exacerbated by the unexpected arrival of Lane (Hannah Pepper), an old friend from back in New Orleans. Well, perhaps “old friend” is not quite the best description—we soon learn that Bertie had a polyamorous relationship with Fred and Lane back home that lasted until Lane took off without any explanation two years earlier. Bertie is not exactly thrilled to see Lane—and has her suspicions over the timing of her visit—but is willing to make the best of it for the few days that she is planning to stay. Inevitably, tensions begin to develop as Bertie and Lane are forced to come to terms with their past relationship and how it ended, while Bertie begins to sense that she may not be quite as over Lane as she professes, especially when she sees her hanging out with Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon), a sexy and much younger Israeli woman that Lane meets at a party and invites back to spend the night with her at Bertie and Fred’s.

It’s a promise that writer-director Marion Hill’s debut feature cannot quite live up to in the end with her romantic melodrama that seems to have everything going for it except for an interesting story or characters that you give a damn about.

The film certainly gets all the surface details right—between the beautiful countryside, the lazy parties lasting long into the night, the abundant farmers markets and the even greater abundance of impossibly attractive people, stir-crazy viewers may end up reaching for the computer to look into vacation bookings so that they can get a taste of it all for themselves. It is when Hill tries to go a little deeper that the film reveals its essential shallowness. The key problem is that I never believed any of the key relationships that the story is based around. Fred, for example, is such a smarmy and duplicitous little twerp that he feels as if he was trucked in from a lesser Philippe Garrell film, and it’s hard to understand what Bertie could possibly see in him. At the same time, you never get any real sense of the blazing chemistry that she and Lane supposedly had that has led to her all but losing her will to sing (a conceit that seems to have been added for those who might have found the stuff with the swimming pool to be too subtle). This becomes especially apparent with the arrival of Noa, who delivers such a shot of pure personality that when she leaves the scene, you want to follow along and see what else she’s up to.

What makes Ma Belle, My Beauty even more frustrating is that it always seems like it is on the verge of turning the corner and becoming something interesting but never quite makes it. When they aren’t hobbled by the requirements of the storyline, Johnson and Pepper have a nice and easygoing rapport and even generate some genuine heat during their big bedroom scene. Unfortunately, they are stuck in the confines of a screenplay that strains to be both easygoing and profound but never quite manages to hit either one.  Ma Belle, Ma Beauty clearly hopes to suggest what Milan Kundera once famously described as “the unbearable lightness of being” but it only comes close to achieving the first part. 

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