Review: ‘Ma Belle, My Beauty,’ starring Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper, Lucien Guignard and Sivan Noam Shimon

September 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lucien Guignard, Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” (Photo by Lauren Guiteras/Good Deed Entertainment)

“Ma Belle, My Beauty”

Directed by Marion Hill

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place mainly in an unnamed city in the south of France, the dramatic film “Ma Belle, My Beauty” features a nearly all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An interracial musician couple (she’s African American, he’s a white Frenchman) try to navigate the changing dynamics in their marriage when a woman from their past polyamorous relationship shows up for a visit at the spouses’ home in France.

Culture Audience: “Ma Belle, My Beauty” will appeal mainly to people who like watching talkative romantic dramas about adult relationships that don’t fall into the typical romantic movie characteristics of heterosexual monogamy.

Sivan Noam Shimon, Idella Johnson, Hannah Pepper and Lucien Guignard in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” (Photo by Lauren Guiteras/Good Deed Entertainment)

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” asks this intriguing question: “What happens when a husband and a wife, who are trying monogamy for the first time in their relationship, are visited by a woman who used to be in a polyamorous relationship with the spouses but dumped them?” Is three a crowd for the people who used to be in this polyamorous three-way relationship? “Ma Belle, My Beauty” doesn’t give easy answers on monogamy or polyamory, but viewers will be taken on an engaging and sometimes uneven ride where love partners have to decide if they’re going to be truthful about their boundaries and desires.

Written, directed and edited by Marion Hill, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, where the movie won the Audience Award: Next prize. “Ma Belle, My Beauty” doesn’t tell a conventional love story that’s usually found in mainstream movies. Therefore, “Ma Belle, My Beauty” isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, especially for viewers who prefer more formulaic fare. At the very least, this movie has some gorgeous cinematography of the south of France, where the movie takes place.

The story of the couple, whose marriage is tested by the arrival of their former polyamorous partner, takes a few twists and turns—some more predictable than others. For the most part, the movie has a natural flow in how it reveals the personalities and quirks of the main characters, who are all in their 30s. The person who’s the most complex is the woman who was at the center of this former polyamorous trio.

Bertie (played by Idella Johnson) is an American singer who’s in the same band as her French husband Fred Carnot (played by Lucien Guignard), a multi-instrumentalist who plays guitar and trumpet. Bertie and Fred write songs together and tour with their band, which performs jazzy pop music. Bertie and Fred have been married for less than two years, and they moved to France around the same time that they became spouses.

Before they got married, Bertie and Fred lived in New Orleans, where they had a three-way relationship with a free-spirited American lesbian named Lane (played by Hannah Pepper), until Lane “ghosted” them and never explained why she cut herself off from Bertie and Fred. After Lane was no longer in their lives, Bertie and Fred got married to each other and moved to the south of France. Bertie doesn’t put a label on her sexuality, while Fred identifies as heterosexual.

The story comes out in bits and pieces of conversation, but the way this three-way relationship is described is that Bertie and Lane fell in love with each other around the same time that Bertie and Fred fell in love with each other. Instead of choosing one partner over the other, Bertie convinced both Fred and Lane to be in a simultaneous relationship with her. Fred and Lane were never sexually intimate, and they agreed to this arrangement because Fred and Lane genuinely liked each other as friends.

Things were going well in this three-way relationship, until Lane abruptly stopped communicating with Bertie and Fred, and Lane ignored Bertie and Fred’s attempts to contact her. Fred and Bertie haven’t seen or spoken to Lane in about two years. During the course of the movie, viewers see that this breakup deeply hurt and confused Bertie more than how it affected Fred. Bertie isn’t sure if she wants to forgive Lane or not, while Fred has already forgiven Lane.

Bertie’s breakup blues have apparently been affecting her relationship with Fred, who secretly contacts Lane and invites Lane to visit and stay with him and Bertie at their home in France. When Fred picks up Lane at the train station, she says to Fred with some trepidation about Bertie: “What if she doesn’t want to see me?” Fred answers, “She loves surprises.” Lane says, “She hates surprises.” Fred replies, “She’ll be fine.”

However, when Bertie sees Lane again for this surprise visit, Lane’s prediction turns out to be true: Bertie hates this surprise. And when Bertie finds out that Fred was the one who invited Lane to stay in their home without Bertie’s consent, Bertie gets angry at him, and it causes more tension in their marriage. Bertie doesn’t want to be rude, so she agrees to let Lane stay in their home, since Bertie knows this living arrangement will be temporary.

Apparently, Lane isn’t just flaky when it comes to her love relationships. She also doesn’t have a steady job or a career in anything. It’s mentioned a few times in the movie that Lane doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life (she’s tried many careers that didn’t work out), and her finances are too unstable for her to afford staying at a hotel. Lane says that her latest career endeavor is she’s thinking about doing massage therapy training in Barcelona.

Bertie is the type of person who doesn’t want Lane to know how much Lane’s breakup hurt her. However, the two women have unresolved feelings for each other. Eventually, Bertie asks Lane why Lane “ghosted” Bertie and Fred. But even before this heart-to-heart talk happens, there were problems in Bertie and Fred’s marriage. Bertie is becoming emotionally distant from Fred, and it’s affected their sex life.

That’s not the only tension in the household. There’s a lot of sexual tension between Bertie and Lane, who tries to kiss Bertie one day when Fred is out of the house and Bertie is playing the piano. Bertie rebuff’s Lane’s advances, but Lane doesn’t give up so easily.

The fractures in Bertie and Fred’s marriage deepen when Bertie announces that she doesn’t want to do a concert tour that has already been booked. Fred can’t understand why Bertie is being so difficult, but observant viewers can easily see that it has to do with Bertie’s lingering feelings for Lane. Meanwhile, in a slightly hilarious moment, Bertie and Fred’s housekeeper Marianne (played by Sarah Taupneau-Wilhelm) says that she’s a singer and offers to substitute for Bertie on the tour. Her offer is politely declined.

After Bertie rejected Lane’s sexual advances, Lane doesn’t waste time in finding a sex partner in France. At a house party thrown by one of Fred and Bertie’s friends, Lane makes eye contact with Noa (played by Sivan Noam Shimon), who is an athletic-looking Israeli army veteran. The two women flirt with each other and go for a drive in a borrowed two-seat red convertible that’s owned by one of people at the party.

Noa says that she has a girlfriend, who doesn’t mind if Noa sleeps with men, whom Noa calls “dildos with a pulse.” It’s implied that Noa’s girlfriend would have a problem with Noa sleeping with other women though. However, Noa and Lane aren’t going to let that get in the way of their immediate attraction to each other.

During Lane and Noa’s first private conversation together, Lane tells Noa about her history with Bertie and Fred. Lane admits that the three-way relationship could be challenging at times. Lane also says something that explains a lot of people’s actions before and during this story takes place. She mentions that in the three-way relationship, Bertie was the one who called the shots.

These issues of control and jealousy come out in different ways in this story. Lane and Noa predictably end up having sex soon after they meet. And the first time that Lane and Noa hook up with each other, it’s in the guest bedroom where Lane is staying at Bertie and Fred’s house. Bertie and Fred can hear Lane and Noa’s loud sexual activities. Bertie tries to not let it show that it bothers her, even though it’s obvious that it does.

Noa spends the night, and the next morning things are a little awkward at breakfast, even though Bertie tries to play it cool. Noa isn’t a one-night stand though. Lane and Noa continue to hang out together and sometimes go on double dates with Bertie and Fred. One day, when all four of them are at a swimming hole, Bertie and Lane have some alone time where Lane puts some sunscreen on Bertie. And then, Bertie makes this confession: “I miss having sex with women.”

Although the characters in “Ma Belle, My Beauty” are very open about their sexualities, the movie has a lot of nuanced dialogue. Fred and Bertie consider themselves to be a hipster couple with open-minded views of various sexualities, and they can candidly talk about sex. However, in their own marriage, they hit some roadblocks because they’re failing to communicate about emotional intimacy.

It’s open to interpretation if Lane is just using Noa to make Bertie jealous. Why did Lane agree to this visit? Does she want to rekindle a romance with Bertie? And is that a good idea when free-spirited Lane obviously resents Bertie’s need for control? As for Fred, he just wants Bertie to be happy, and he knows that Bertie was happy when Lane was in their lives. Fred tells Lane that he misses Lane being in their lives too.

There are no “heroes” or “villains” in “Ma Belle, My Beauty.” It’s a story of flawed people trying to find love and happiness in the best way that they can while staying true to themselves. Johnson’s portrayal of Bertie is what makes this movie worth watching (she’s also a very good singer) because Bertie isn’t so transparent about her emotions in the way that Fred and Lane are. Johnson is very skilled at using eye contact and body language to convey Bertie’s true feelings. The movie’s emotional tone is also enhanced by Mahmoud Chouki’s jazzy musical score.

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” makes some mention of Bertie being the only black person in the social circles that she now has in France. There are hints that she sometime wonders if she made the right decison to leave her family and friends behind in America to start a new life in France, where Fred already knows a lot of people. It’s this feeling of isolation that further fuels Bertie’s angst.

Pepper’s portrayal of impetuous Lane is that of someone who’s capable of real love but seems ambivalent about her own ability to commit to a long-term relationship. Lane shows signs of underlying insecurities that she’s not as accomplished in her life as her peers. As a coping mechanism, Lane just jumps around from job to job and relationship to relationship. As for Fred, he’s the least complicated character in this trio. And that might be a good thing for Guignard, because his acting skills just aren’t on the same convincing level as his co-stars.

Viewers will get the impression that Bertie is not used to being rejected, so she’s trying to heal her bruised ego without wanting to admit how wounded she really is. Bertie doesn’t want Lane to hurt her again, but Lane’s arrival reminds Bertie of all the good times they had together. Lane is unapologetic about wanting to have her sexual needs met, which is why she hooks up so quickly with Noa. But is Lane capable of making the kind of commitment that Bertie would want if their romance is rekindled?

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” is often visually stylish, but a little rough around the edges when it comes to the acting and story arc. That’s not to say that the movie needed a neat and tidy ending. However, there are some parts of the movie that tend to wander and drag out the question of “Will Bertie and Lane get back together or not?” It’s not quite a soap opera, but “Ma Belle, My Beauty” has enough messy relationship drama that viewers instinctively know that things won’t easily be resolved in the few weeks that this story takes place.

Good Deed Entertainment released “Ma Belle, My Beauty” in select U.S. cinemas on August 20, 2021.