NOLA filmmaker makes debut at Sundance

Clara Lacey, Senior Staff Reporter

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

New Orleans-based filmmaker Marion Hill made her feature debut last week in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival with “Ma Belle, My Beauty,” a dreamy and nuanced story grappling with the realities and emotions of a polyamorous relationship. Though Sundance looked different this year during the pandemic, the film premiered in New Orleans last Tuesday for a socially distanced showing at The Broadside outdoor theater and won the Audience Award for Sundance’s NEXT sidebar.

“Getting the Audience Award was truly something,” Hill said. “Especially because this year with the virtual component of the festival, thousands of people were able to watch the film and then could vote — so after having been deprived of the affirmation of a real live audience for the premiere, it feels like those who saw it virtually were saying ‘Good job! We love this!’ and I honestly really needed that.”

Set in the picturesque south of France, the film opens with a surprise reunion between the now-married couple Bertie and Fred and their former lover Lane, whose entry brings some tension to the sun-soaked vineyard. After losing her mother, Bertie finds herself unable to sing and practice with her husband, leaving her to tend to the villa and make trips to town as he takes the spotlight. Lane’s arrival, at the request of Fred, who feels she can help get Bertie out of her funk, shakes up the relationship as unresolved feelings between the women resurface over scenic bike rides across the countryside and flowing glasses of red wine. Hill unravels the layers of this relationship gradually and delicately, revealing the strong connection that Bertie and Lane share as well as past heartbreak that weighs heavily on Bertie throughout the film. Cinematographic shots of the characters’ glances at each other through windows and through other people at dinner parties highlight the heartbreaking building tension as well as the intense care between Lane and Bertie. 

“Ma Belle, My Beauty” is strongly grounded in New Orleans, as the characters are expatriates from New Orleans, and both Bertie and Fred are jazz-style musicians. Music plays a crucial role in the film, adorning the story with tenderness and reminding us of the characters’ New Orleans roots.

 “Music was one of the first elements of making this film,” Hill said. “Before I even had the script fully written I was working with Mahmoud Chouki regularly to develop what the film would sound like … I wanted New Orleans to feel like a subtle presence throughout the film and have always found it funny how Europeans think New Orleans is amazing while New Orleanians think Europe is amazing — so I wanted to just play with that as much as possible.”

Though a film about a polyamorous relationship between three people might run the risk of turning into a three’s company spectacle, Hill infuses authenticity and care into the storytelling that explores and showcases non-monogamy in a realistic way. This is not a coming-out story, and the intricacies of non-monogamy themselves are not picked apart, though of course they are discussed. Though Fred and Bertie are now married, he makes space for Lane and Bertie’s relationship, at one point confessing to her that Bertie “hasn’t sung like she sang last night since you left, and I know I will never have that effect on her.” Lane in turn, when asked about her feelings for her lover’s husband, says “It’s hard not to love someone who loves the person you care about.” The balances and imbalances between the characters’ relationships pose strong questions about the nature of monogamy and love. 

The sophisticated representation of queer and polyamorous relationships as the central plot of the film acts as a fascinating and timely update to the traditional dramatic romance genre. 

“I always knew I wanted to write and direct some kind of dramatic love story but I wanted it to feel within my time and for it to reflect the kinds of things that I have experienced in navigating love and partnerships,” said Hill. “For me it was really all about creating a beautiful, sensual piece that would be fun to watch but that would also honor the raw nuance of queer relationships.”