An ultramodern look at love and sex shuffles about onscreen in Marion Hill’s misty feature debut Ma Belle, My Beauty, projecting queer lust with a bountiful but chill sense of possibility. Most excitingly, the film presents the sexual-romantic entanglements of its characters outside of the cinema’s typical binaries. Here Hill serves us a drama closer to reality, where polyamory and bisexuality are presented with frank naturalism, unfetishized as more purile films might examine them as othered. But though unpretentious clearheadedness Hill provides regarding sex in the modern world creates a bounty of freshness to the experience of watching the film, that frankness doesn’t translate to characters we find all that interesting. Nor does the picturesque lifestyle of those characters feel recognizably relatable on a human level.
The film centers on the romantic past and present (while curious for the future) of singer Bertie (a promising Idella Johnson), an American ex-pat of sorts recently married to jazz musician Fred (Lucien Guignard) and settling into an idyllic French country home between tours. Bertie’s former lover Lane (Hannah Pepper) makes a surprise visit, stirring not only sexual intrigue but awakening Bertie from an encroaching malaise. What follows is a wine-soaked tango through the beautific landscape, party guests, and the pathos of sexual longing as we enter knee-deep into adulthood.
Ma Belle, My Beauty is mostly successful in building a relaxed and sun-soaked mood throughout, becoming the kind of film you sigh into as it envelopes you. It’s a gilded aspirational lifestyle film, thriving on its spectacle of French countryside and contemporary boho aesthetics and vibes. Not to be too reductive, but it’s that Instagram profile you follow that’s way cooler than you brought to the screen. But the film’s allure isn’t to be fully cast aside, as Hill does conjure the kind of tonal, sensual bliss not easily rendered with ease. The film sort of comforts by laboring nothing, giving us a day trip into an excess of ease and creature comfort.
But what Hill molds in an arresting tone is found wanting in character development and narrative impact. Here, that laidback energy doesn’t serve the sexual tension or character dynamics at the film’s core. Even though it doesn’t objectify its characters or navel gaze their sex lives, Ma Belle, My Beauty is a too remote film trapped behind glass. Sumptuous on the surface level, it approaches their deeper inner lives, but only on the periphery; the film would much rather be a member of the party than fully understand or contextualize its hosts. It makes for a delightful and fleeting excursion at the movies, but one that evaporates as you watch it.
A film that is at a simmer on all levels, and frustratingly never boiling where it needs to, Ma Belle, My Beauty is best met with tempered expectations and a hunger for the surface over the substance. However, it does mark an intriguing debut for writer/director Hill as an expressive storyteller for sensory texture, with flashes of nuance that promise one who could blossom into narrative depth as well.