The only walls that Marion Hill ever considered in the making of her debut feature “Ma Belle My Beauty” were the ones that it would take place inside, knowing of a house in the South of France where the French-Vietnamese filmmaker’s family had roots in the community.
“As I’m working on a new script, I’m struggling with not working that way because this first script I knew exactly what rooms would fit the intention of the moment and I could visualize them,” laughed Hill. “There was not much looking around for the perfect place.”
It was ideal for reasons besides what ended up on screen, allowing the writer/director to offer a bit of a vacation to the cast and crew that she had brought with her from her now-native New Orleans when the budget was modest. Wine, which flowed freely from the nearby vineyards, and sun were never in short supply, and it now feels as if Hill has generously allowed audiences in on the fun, transcending the screen as readily as all the other barriers she sought to remove with “Ma Belle, My Beauty,” which tells of Bertie (Idella Johnson), a singer who has slipped into a funk after her mother has passed and she has trouble acclimating to her new surroundings in Europe after a move from the Big Easy. Her new husband Fred (Lucien Guignard) hopes to rouse her out of her malaise with a surprise visit from Lane (Hannah Pepper), an old flame from back home and while the trio defied putting any labels on their relationship long ago, there are other concerns that crop up with Lane’s arrival when Bertie and Lane didn’t end things on the best terms and a shared desire by all not to be defined by traditional societal constructs in any aspect of their lives, from where they should be in terms of their age or who they should be given their cultural background, brings up the continual need to push each other see where the boundaries are.
Form becomes function in “Ma Belle My Beauty” as a narrative that feels at first as though it’s carried along by the breeze grows more concerted and things come more into focus for Bertie, who can’t help but feel some slight pangs of jealousy when another guest (Sivan Noam Shimon) enters the picture to grab Lane’s attention. Still, the romantic roundelay is predominantly filled with love — for all the people in it finding their way in the world and the world itself, full of natural glories that suggest that letting things take their own course often yield rich rewards. Following the film’s debut at Sundance where it won the Audience Award in the NEXT section, the film is hitting theaters this week and Hill spoke about how she too was entering uncharted territory with a love story told with a nonjudgmental view towards polyamory, the cultural collision that led to so many sparks on set and how being the film’s editor helped her figure out how to shoot it.
I know the South of France was in mind from the state, but how did the rest of this come about?
It’s hard to say, but it really was a question of what was on my mind at the time and what I was working with. It really all started with the sensory type of film that I knew I wanted to make, so I reached out to the pieces around me in New Orleans, around me in France and knew I wanted to tell a love story because I grew up watching love stories, feeling like it was never quite what I wanted out of [what] I was watching, so I figured I would just make my own. I blended a lot of things together and this film just popped out.
I imagine you weren’t just handing a script to the actors, but actively developing this with them. What was the back-and-forth like?
It was different with all four of them, logistically speaking, but it was a highly collaborative process and I think we all just really knew who the characters were by the time we were shooting because of that. There was a lot of back-and-forth, specifically with Idella Johnson, who plays Bertie. My collaboration with her in the scriptwriting was the most important because she’s our magnet to which all others are flocking and there’s a lot going on with her character that I wanted to subtly inform what we understand about her and not necessarily feel like a direct correlation between her personality, her background, her struggles and what was going on in the story.
That’s one of the things that I thought must’ve been so interesting with this, but also the challenge of it — when you have this loose-limbed narrative that doesn’t doesn’t adhere to traditional arcs, what gave this shape?
It was tricky because part of what I want to do is present nuance and inconclusive things to an audience and allow them to think for themselves, but one could go on forever presenting inconclusive story elements and eventually probably drive them crazy, so I was definitely making decisions along the way of what was the nuance that I felt I wanted to lean into and what was the nuance that would add a little too much diluting and confusion to the main journey of the story. That was a big part of the process, and there were some other B-plot things that weren’t super-relevant that ended up being cut, but that originally were intended to just invite us in to what’s going on with a character and more about the complexity of their backgrounds. To me, it’s always a balance and that’s the beauty of working this way.
When you’re bringing people cast and crew from New Orleans into this community in France that you knew well, what was it like seeing the alchemy between them?
It was amazing. One of my favorite memories from the shoot was late at night when everyone was hanging out but me and my assistant director and the DP were locked in our room, wondering what the next day was going to look like. I would emerge from that room and there would just be a room of French people, New Orleanians making music together and drinking and having a good time and none of these people knew each other. It was a very direct reflection of what was going on in the film, to have that going on every night when the cameras weren’t rolling that really served our purpose very well.
This isn’t the music you’re talking about, but from what I understand, the score was in mind from before production. How did it inform shooting?
Yes, my inspiration led with sensory and to me, music is 80% of the sensory experience, so finding my composer Mahmoud Chouki and allowing his music to inform the writing itself and to inform the pacing was key. The whole fireside moment where Bertie sings was his idea actually because he wrote a song and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if she sang this in the movie?” And I said, “That would be cool,” and that scene became a turning point in the whole film that a lot of stuff got built around. Mahmoud, like me, is equally culturally confused, having grown up all over the place and speaks lots of languages, so he just understands what it is to move through different kinds of places as who we are, even though the very queer-heavy aspect of the film was new to him. It all made sense when we put it all together because of our joint lens.
Was the rhythm of the pacing in your head going into shooting? You edited the film as well and there’s so much space given to the actors, both in terms of how they’re portrayed on screen as much as the time they have on screen.
Yeah, we filmed in 13 days and I think the only reason we were able to pull this production off was knowing exactly what we needed to shoot and shooting no more than that and by the time I got to the edit room, it was really a question of stringing together what we had initially set out to do. There was no room for recreating the film in the edit room, so the DP [Lauren Guiteras] and I really had to be on the same page about exactly what the pacing of each scene was going to be and we were able to be incredibly efficient. The edit really came down to selecting the takes that would create the arc because so much of the energy of this film comes from the subtlety of the performances, so knowing exactly what the pacing was going to be was really a question of hitting the right level for each character at the right moment.
I loved hearing Sivan came to set in a week into shooting just like her character shakes things up in the film. Did that bring a new energy to it?
Definitely, the first scene we shot was the morning after she and Lane have sex, so she was new to everybody around the table and that felt like here’s a new member of this polycule that we now have to figure out this new chemistry [with]. It was fun to also add her, coming from a whole different place and culture too, so adding her to the pot was very fun.
Was there anything that happened that was unexpected that you now like about the film?
That finale song was this interesting thing where for some reason, I was listening to Bobby Womack while we were on set every morning and his music just started to infuse how I was feeling about some of the scenes. When I came home and worked with Mahmoud, the composer on the final song, he was like, “What?!? This is what you want for the finale? This is so different from everything else.” He was like very not convinced for a while, but that finale song makes the whole movie I think and it literally came from a track that popped up on Spotify while I was working in France, so I thought roll with it.
Was making a feature what you thought it would be? Was it different?
The brutally honest answer is that I didn’t anticipate this at all. For me, going into this film was really an experiment — and this is just a coping mechanism as well — but I really just wanted to dive into an artistic process that felt very radical to what I believe in in terms of collaboration and storytelling, so the product of the film was, in New Orleans, you’d say “Lagniappe” — it’s additional. It’s gravy. So it’s an adjustment to see something that felt like an experiment on big posterboards out in the world, but what I’m most thrilled about is the team that I worked with all going through this together. We’re all so close — Idella and Hannah and my producers are my best friends and it’s a very special expansive time for us.
“Ma Belle, My Beauty” opens on August 20th in New York at the Angelika Film Center and Los Angeles at the Landmark and expands on August 27th. A full list of theaters is here.