Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper in Ma Belle, My Beauty Photo: Inside Out
A gently paced, atmospheric story played out against the backdrop of southern France, Ma Belle, My Beauty explores the dynamics of a relationship on the rocks. Bertie (Idella Johnson) is an African American singer who has recently arrived in the region but seems ill at ease and can’t find much will to perform. Her French husband Fred (Lucien Guignard) is anxious about this because they’re soon supposed to be going on tour, so he invites her former girlfriend Lane (Hannah Pepper) over from the US to visit them in the hope of lifting her mood. This doesn’t quite go to plan as unresolved issues between the two women lead to a difficult period of self-reflection for all of them.
The film is screening as part of Inside Out and Marion and I connected to discuss it. The first thing I noted was that it’s part of a new wave of films looking at polyamorous relationships in non-exploitative ways. I think there’s huge storytelling potential in this and I ask why it appealed to her.
“I think that is, there is a lot of storytelling potential,” she agrees. “But it's quite difficult. Because, you know, usually, when you're telling a relationship story, or a story about love, especially a queer or gay one, you've got things standing in the way of these people falling in love, whether it’s society, whether it's an angry husband or angry parents, like someone being in the closet, you know? When you take away all of those barriers and you still need to create a story that has conflict, it does open up so many doors but it also becomes more difficult because you have to figure out, okay, what's standing in the way? How do I show that it's internal barriers that are standing in the way of these people? So yeah, it was fun, it was a really exciting challenge.”
So how did she develop the story?
“Originally, I started with the location. And I started with knowing that I wanted it to be a love story that centred three people. The polyamory aspect actually didn't develop until a little bit later. And I guess that was reflecting my own experience. I was writing this script as I was starting to know more about polyamory and practice polyamory myself, and then all of that part of the story just came flooding in very quickly after that.
“But yeah, I kind of worked from there. I was lucky that being my first feature, I definitely wasn't planning on having really big name actors. So I was able to cast local folks and folks that I knew early on. And so they were able to inform how the script was coming together very organically.”
Did that actually make it easier to find the right individual for each character?
“I think so. I mean, it was out of necessity, you know. I was approaching actors that that wanted to work with me, and that I knew at least a little bit. But I think it was different, because now, for my next feature, it's definitely more like, finish the entire script and know exactly what each character is like, and then go and find an actor who can do that. And I'm not sure that that's actually the best way of ensuring authenticity in a character.”
And this was Hannah Pepper’s first film, wasn't it?
“Yeah. Well, I guess it was also Idella’s first feature film, and Hannah had not done much screen work at all.”
So was it a challenge for her as a director, working with people who had less experience in film?
“No,” she says. “It was a pleasure. It was a total pleasure because none of us had preconceived ways of working, so we were able to develop our language together. And they were just so committed to the project, really into being part of the story, that, yeah, I never felt like I was working with inexperienced people at all.”
How long did they have for the actual shoot? Were they able to experiment?
“I wouldn't say we felt rushed,” says Marion, “but definitely there was not any room to make mistakes, and we were very tight. Everything was pretty intentional, there was not much experimenting going on. Which I think actually is the way I like to work. I mean, it definitely would be cool, you know, to have a script that really invites experiment, but this one, I think it feels like it could but the subtlety and what the characters are, in their transformation throughout the film, has had to be really exact.”
Going back to what she said earlier about the location – Cévennes in the southern part of the Massif Central – I note that that type of setting has been used a lot before, particularly in romantic films. How did she approach that so that she could find something fresh to bring to it?
“Well, I definitely was looking at it through the lens of a queer woman, which I think is, in itself, kind of fresh. And as someone who's pretty American and is bringing a lot of American sensibilities into the film, but also has a connection to the place. So I think, yeah, it just felt very organic to me, based on my perspective, and I think I also really was interested in bringing characters from the South of the US – New Orleans is down in Louisiana – and bringing them to not only Europe, but the equivalent of the Southern world. There are very much parallels, what it means to be from the south of a place. You know, their accents are different. I don't know, English speaking people might not pick up on it. But I was excited to bring those two worlds together because I had never seen that done before.”
As viewers, we are introduced to the location when Lane arrives there, but in some ways Bernie, with her limited French and increasing tendency to isolate herself, seems like more of an outsider...
“Yeah, I think that made a lot of sense for Bernie's character,” says Marion. “She had internal things going on but also, you know, being a black woman in this small European town where she doesn't speak the language. And we can see in the film that those who don't speak English kind of ignore her. I think for me, that made a lot of sense. You know, being an immigrant going into a small town, that's what it's like.
“I was working a lot with Idella to build on the many things that were contributing to her feeling isolated and lack of creativity. Americans have this very idyllic view of France. It’s funny, like, as Americans have watched this film, all they can talk about is how beautiful France is And while that's true, I wanted to just kind of highlight that it is beautiful but that doesn't mean that you can run away there and automatically be happy.”
Music is very important to the film. Is there musical as well as romantic jealousy going on?
“I don’t think Bernie is jealous of Fred,” she says. “I think that it's kind of the opposite, actually. She has something very special. And he's very aware of that. But she's kind of refusing to deliver it at the moment. And she believes in her right, you know, to not deliver if she doesn't feel like it. As opposed to him. He's very disciplined, very driven and disciplined. He doesn't make space for emotional ups and down in his artistic career. Probably because he's never had to.
I tell there that I like the way she explores queer identity in their relationship like that. The fact that Bertie has got married to a man but she still thinks of herself in that way, and how she navigates that.
“That definitely was one of the first components of the relationship that I wanted to explore, you know, a queer woman that has a queer history that ends up marrying, which is already very traditional, and not a very queer thing to do. And then on top of that, too, you know, comes with all the luxury. A lot the first 25 minutes of the film, are the two women just kind of reckoning with that, you know. Lane is clearly frustrated about it, not because she doesn't believe that Fred is a good person, but because that wasn't, you know, what she thought were Bernie’s values.
“I think that as queer people, that's something that we fight about all the time, right? Like, as we become more open to queerness and the liberation of your identity and how you want to live and how you want to be, you know, everyone gets to love how they want to love and that's the pillar in polyamory as well. But at the same time, you know, there's those who don't believe in marriage and you feel betrayed when someone gets married, especially if they marry a straight man.”
She has many more feelings about that topic, she says, but only so much can fit into one film. It’s a topic she may return to in another one.
I note that I’ve read several reviews of the film in which critics just assume that all three of the main characters are sleeping with each other. Perhaps it’s a demonstration of how much the public at large still has to learn about polyamory.
“Right. true. Yeah,” says Marion. “I mean, Lane does explicitly say that she and Fred are not sexual. But yeah, I think a cool thing about polyamory that I felt important to show here was the non sexual part, you know, that you can have a partnership without being sexual, that that can look all kinds of ways. That's the way we understand partnership and love and community. It’s expansive. It's not driven by what we do sexually. And I think that that's a really key part of what's happening, not only in the queer conversations, but mainstream conversation where we're just starting to understand gender a lot more, talk about gender a lot more. And understand that gender, like the way you think of yourself, the way you move in the world, it has nothing to do with who you have sex with. It doesn't have to do I mean, it can, but it doesn't have to. I think that slowly, more and more people are understanding that you can be completely straight and still have a way of loving, a way of thinking of yourself that's not completely straight, and that's just as valid as people who are having sex.”
The other thing that really interested me about it narratively, I say, is that it's set very much in the middle of the characters’ lives. It's not about how they're growing up and learning at the very start of their adult lives, and it's there's no natural conclusion as they get old and settle into a pattern that's necessarily going to be there forever. It's challenging to write about something like that, because one doesn't have any obvious end points. I wondered how deliberate that was, for her to explore that kind of territory.
“It was deliberate,” she says. “I found, unconsciously that I often write characters who are a little bit older than me. And I think that that, to me, is kind of looking into myself in the future, where probably by the time I'm at age, that is very much a reality, you know, what's going on, and it will be very normal for many people. And so I think coming of age, like the impulse for a story about unconditional love and identity, sexuality, etc... the impulse to put that in the context of coming of age and discovery has been done so many times, you know? And now we're dying to see folks who've already done that, have been through the transformation and the hard conversations. I mean, I've also found, I guess, since we're talking about critics, those who are frustrated that polyamory isn't really explained more, that you know, the things that they're feeling and going through, they don't really talk about it. But for me, the point is that they're beyond that.”
It’s fiction, not a textbook, I venture.
“Yeah. And they've already talked about that, you know? If this film took place 10 years ago, that is what we would have been seeing, but at this point they already have their language and their rules and their understandings and we're just watching them kind of revisit them without having to hash it all out all over again.”
So how does she feel about the film being at Inside Out?
“Great,” she says. “Honestly, yeah, I've been so excited by the festival love it’s been getting. I'm really sad that I haven't been able to go to any of them so I have mixed feelings but you know, I'm still really grateful that the audience at each specific one has been so loyal and dedicated to queer indie films.”
What's next for her now?
“Well, the film will come out in theatres in August, in the US. It’s exciting. And I’m still caught u in all of that, but definitely starting to write what's next. I’m looking at a Louisiana based feature that takes place on the coast, that's going to centre more of my Vietnamese side. There’s a wonderful, vibrant Vietnamese community here in Louisiana, and yeah, I’m going to see what I can do in that realm.”