In Marion Hill’s nuanced feature film debut, Ma Belle, My Beauty, old passions and jealousies are reignited in the south of France between two women who were formerly polyamorous lovers. The winner of the Audience Award in the NEXT category at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, the picturesque 93-minute film centers Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Lane (Hannah Pepper), who reunite for the first time in years at the behest of Bertie’s husband, Fred (Lucien Guignard).
As newlywed musicians, Bertie and Fred have moved to Fred’s family home in the beautiful French countryside, where they dream of performing together. While Fred has been able to tap into his European roots to feel right at home, Bertie—who is a native of New Orleans—struggles with a lingering depression that affects her singing career and leaves her feeling alienated in a small, white European town.
Realizing that his wife is stuck in a creative and emotional rut, Fred decides to enlist the help of Lane—the eccentric ex that gratuitously disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago. But when Bertie refuses to buy into Lane’s attempts to recreate their old, carefree dynamic, Lane begins going out with a stunning Israeli ex-soldier named Noa (Sivan Noam Shimon), which quickly reignites dormant jealousies.
In an exclusive Zoom call with Observer, Johnson and Pepper talk about the development of their working relationship with Hill, their best memories of shooting long days in southern France, and the lessons that they hope viewers are able to take away from this film about love.
Observer: This is such an incredibly unique film that was conceptualized from start to finish by Marion Hill. How did you first meet her and become involved with this project?
Idella Johnson: She approached me first at a New Orleans Film Festival that we have here every year. I was a lead actress in a short film that was being featured called Blood Runs Down by Zandashé Brown. Marion happened to see that film and loved it, and afterwards, she came up to me and [said] she had this role that she thought that I would be perfect [for].
She asked me, “What do you think about polyamory?” (Laughs.) At the time, I’d heard about polyamory, but I didn’t know too much about it. I was like, “Well, it sounds very interesting and I wouldn’t be opposed to it.” So, we spent several times meeting, I did my research, and she eventually sent me a script. It was just a beautiful story that I thought I was going to be able to really enjoy doing and sinking my teeth into.
Hannah Pepper: Marion and I had seen each other around town, but we didn’t deeply know each other. I was at a point in my career where I had been doing a lot of collaborative original work, and I wanted to be doing more scripted work. I got a text message one night that was like, “Hey, this is Marion Hill. I’m looking for somebody to do a reading and someone recommended you. Are you available for this reading?” Unfortunately, I wasn’t available, but there was very bad weather and the meeting got rescheduled, so I was able to go [after all].
I was just really into the script and the character, so I really prepared for the reading. Marion doesn’t really know this, but I went to the reading like it was an audition. (Johnson laughs.) It was clear that I connected to the character and Marion and I got along, but then it was kind of courtship around the character for a while. We hung out at least twice just to “talk about the character,” and then Marion was finally like, “Do you want to audition?” I basically did two auditions and then they were finally like, “You got the part!”
We have seen a lot of queer femme love stories over the years, but one of the things that I really appreciated about this film was how it did not fall into the mainstream trope of struggling with sexuality. How were you able to build your characters to make sure that you didn’t fall back into the same mainstream tropes?
Pepper: I think a lot of the credit is to be given to Marion for the script and for leaning away from some of those tropes. The script had so much richness that was in there for the characters and I think Idella and I are both committed actors, in the sense that we’ll do a lot of research and character-building. I think just a commitment to the fullness of the people in this film is really your only way to avoid a trope. It’s hard to avoid a trope because tropes just exist and people can see them, but I think the only defense we have is specificity.
Johnson: Authenticity, for me, was a big one too. I definitely was very much aware of being cliché. I wanted my character to be authentic in a way where anybody can relate to her. So, like Hannah was saying, it was there in the script and it was there in the work that led up to us even going to France and filming. I think that kind of grounded the whole thing for us.
The ability to be vulnerable, whether that’s emotionally vulnerable or physically vulnerable, doesn’t just happen.
There is a striking sense of intimacy that seems to permeate throughout the film with all of the characters, which is definitely shown in some of the really intimate love scenes. Given the romantic history of your characters, how were you able to foster that intimacy?
Johnson: One cool thing that stands out for me in terms of creating that trust [was]—sometime before we went to France—Hannah, Marion and I did a retreat at this little farmhouse. We played games and we did character stuff with each other.
We also talked and discussed everything. We made sure that we consented to what we were comfortable with and we spoke up about things we weren’t comfortable with. We had that trust among the three of us, and by the time we got to France, we had that trust with our cinematographer as well. We just had the trust to be able to give in those moments and a lot of work went into that.
Pepper: The ability to be vulnerable, whether that’s emotionally vulnerable or physically vulnerable, doesn’t just happen. In any relationship, it takes a certain amount of continuous care, cultivation, attention. I think Idella and I grew that during the retreat and we just really continued to do that in France, so we could be there for each other and access that intimacy. In those intimate scenes, everything was set and blocked. There wasn’t any question about, “Oh, what are we going to do next?” It was the opposite of spontaneity.
Idella, you just had the most beautiful singing scene in this film. In your opinion, what kind of role does singing play in Bertie’s life?
Johnson: I think music and singing is the driving force in her life. It’s like when you find that one thing that you are not just good at, but it brings you such joy no matter what you’re going through. When we meet her at the beginning when she’s not really able to access that, it’s troubling for her, especially when you add the layers of losing her mom, being devastated after the break-up with Lane where there was no closure, and just being in a new place that you thought was just going to be your escape [when it really wasn’t]. By the time she gets to sing, I think you get to experience that with her and what it does for her. Ultimately, I think it was a song that was just a culmination of all of the characters, the love, the difficulties all rolled up into one, but it was therapeutic in a way.
You got the chance to shoot in just the most incredible landscape in the south of France. Can you talk a little bit about your fondest memories from shooting the film?
Johnson: It was a small town, and just the fact that the neighbors put us up in their homes for free and were all a part of us creating the film as well. That was just so beautiful, ’cause it just gave you this at-home feeling, that you can just be really comfortable and free.
One of the neighbors was tending to his vineyard and he was speaking to me in French and he kept putting bunches of grapes into my arms and I was just like, “Merci, merci.” He just kept piling them on! And he was talking and talking. Someone else was there and she was saying, “Oh, he’s so excited to meet you. He’s excited about the film and everything.” I just remember that and the connection that Marion had with it. She grew up there, and I was blown away by that.
Pepper: For me, it had everything to do with the food there. The food was just beyond. I don’t want to just speak about clichés, but the cheese was really good and so was the bread. We all sat at this really long picnic table every night when we finished shooting 12 hours a day, and we just ate this delicious food and gathered together and drank wine under the stars. Even under pre-pandemic circumstances, that was amazing.
There were also fig trees on the property. We had this one day off and I remember picking figs off the trees and taking my cup of coffee and this book I was reading and sitting on this hill, looking over the vineyards, and I was like, “Alright. Definitely top 10 most beautiful experiences for sure.” It was pretty idyllic.
What was that phone call like when you discovered that Ma Belle, My Beauty had been selected for Sundance? What was it like to have a virtual premiere?
Johnson: It was funny because, to be honest with you, I kind of felt like something like this was going to happen. I wasn’t really surprised, but Marion was surprised. [She said], “I don’t want to get my hopes up. Everybody’s saying that it might not happen.” It’s something that you visualize and dream about. I was just really excited, but I wasn’t surprised because I felt like the project was so special and everything was just happening in such a magical and beautiful way.
Pepper: I’m pretty new to the film industry—and this is going to sound a little silly—but I wasn’t sure if Sundance was a big deal. (They both laugh.) Marion told me and I was kind of like, “Cool, cool.” Then, I told about 15 people in November, and I also didn’t know that we weren’t allowed to tell anyone. It was just the people in my life who didn’t really have a relationship to what that meant. I remember we had a little distanced cocktail hour in the backyard and I think I ended up asking, “So, is this a big deal?” (They both laugh.) And then I was like, “Oh, okay.”
Obviously, it was a bummer that it wasn’t in person. It was hard to really meet anyone at the virtual thing. However, it was amazing that so many of my friends and family who would never be in Park City, Utah, were able to watch. That was so cool and we got to have a Sundance remote stage here in New Orleans, which felt super, super special.
In her director’s statement, Marion wrote, “Polyamory today is what homosexuality was a few decades ago; an identity and an existence that remains misunderstood and thus more or less ‘underground.’” What do you hope viewers are able to take away from this film about polyamory and love in general?
Pepper: I think what I would like people to take away about polyamory is less about a particular structure of relationship, but more the concept that the structure and nature of a relationship can be, and maybe should be, consensually determined by the people who are in it. What I love about this film is that it shows these characters existing within a polyamorous situation; the polyamorous situation doesn’t become the object of the film that is critiqued on its success or failure. It just says, “This is how these people have chosen to exist.” And if that empowers more people to be like, “Oh, I can bring what I desire to my own relationship. In conversation with the folks that I’m building with, we can make our relationship look like something that works for us.”
Johnson: I agree. One thing that stood out for me that I hope people can grab onto is the respect for certain boundaries in a relationship and the attention being paid to what a person really needs and realizing it and respecting it. And just to have the freedom to choose and not feel like you have to be boxed in to what society says is a “healthy” relationship. There’s been a lot of questions about the marriage between Bertie and Fred, but there is something that Fred and Lane brought to the table that was very much needed and that Bertie fell in love with. People didn’t judge it in a film. It was like, “Oh, this is happening,” but there was never any judgment and I really loved that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.