I am in love. I’m in love with Marion Hill’s ‘Ma Belle, My Beauty.’ This film is a romance that involves many people, but at the heart of it is the love between Bertie (Idella Johnson) and Lane (Hannah Pepper). At one time, Bertie and Lane were both in a polyamorous relationship with Fred (Lucien Guignard) in New Orleans, but Lane fled the relationship, leaving Bertie and Fred together. Bertie and Fred marry and move to the French countryside. When Lane comes for a visit, sparks and emotions run high. Romance and self-discovery ensues through Lane’s reunion with Bertie. This is the type of film that you will carry with you afterward, and your soul will be richer after watching it. I was fortunate to talk about this deeply moving gem with the director Marion Hill, along with actors Idella Johnson and Hannah Pepper. The film had its world premiere at Sundance last month and won the NEXT Audience award.
REBECCA MARTIN: What brought you to this project?
MARION HILL: I grew up watching a lot of love stories. Love stories drew me into cinema. I just was in love with romantic films, such as those starring Audrey Hepburn and Robert Redford. When I started to study film, I realized that my first feature was going to be my own version of a love story that would bring together all different kinds of people, different types of personalities and cultures. I knew I had a family place that I wanted to film in, and I always knew that I wanted to shoot my first feature there. It really was just a matter of figuring out who the characters were, and what the drama was going to be. Being in New Orleans, it was natural for me to focus on musicians. I work with a lot of musicians, and my friends are musicians. So things just kind of evolved from there, and piece by piece, components of the story came together. Actually when I met Idella, things started to move along even more in terms of who Bertie was going to be. Once I had Bertie figured out, I met Hannah, and she helped me shape who Lane was going to be, as well as the dynamic between them. Together, Idella and Hannah confirmed who the two characters were to each other. It was all just very natural, in a way.
IDELLA JOHNSON: Marion brought me to this film. She and I had an immediate connection and chemistry. Talking with her, I felt very open to share many things, and she just has this way about her. I became intrigued with the character because it was a fresh story, a new story that dealt with things that I’ve never experienced. It also allowed me to put myself in a situation that was very exciting and very appealing. I wanted to see how all of that would fall into place. It was very organic.
HANNAH PEPPER: It all started with a text message from Marion. I had seen her around town before, but we didn’t know each other, although we did have mutual friends. Someone gave Marion my name because they were looking for someone to do a reading to get some critiques from film actors. Marion texted me, and the date did not work for me, because at the time I was in a residency in the outskirts of New Orleans, and I didn’t have transportation, which sometimes made it difficult for me to make it to town. I was bummed that I could not make it, but readings come and go. Then she reached out again to say that they had to reschedule the meeting, and asked if I was available, and I was. I got a ride into town. I wasn’t told that I had to, but I decided I was going to do some prep and really go deep into the script, and do some background. I loved the script. All I want as an actor is a character that has a rich emotional landscape, and I immediately saw that the character had it.
People often talk about chemistry between actors, but the energetic connection between actor and director is usually the most elusive. It was really important for me to feel the connection with Marion early on. It was funny because we were doing this dance in the beginning where we would get together and talk about the character or the script. I went to two auditions after that. But there was this funny time in between where I was consulting with Marion about this character. I figured I would audition for it later. But then I met Idella in the first audition, and we immediately built together this container of trust. Even through that audition, we could go into these vulnerable places that was very exciting.
MARTIN: Talk about bringing a polyamorous relationship to the screen in a real way. You never see that!
HILL: To be honest, I was nervous to dive into polyamory, like many things it’s a spectrum. It’s a lot of hard work, and the responsibility I was taking on to represent polyamory authentically was big. I was drawn to polyamory because of the pillars of polyamory. One pillar is radical communication, another is knowing one’s self, another is being able to express your own needs, boundaries, and wants, and finally respecting everyone else needs and boundaries as much as you respect your own. That’s shit we all need to do. And it doesn’t matter if you have multiple partners or if you have one partner, those are just general things we all need to work on. Learning about polyamory personally is really what gave me tools for knowing myself and knowing other people. That’s why it felt really important for me to showcase polyamory. That being said, it was very challenging because in a romantic drama the conflict of a story is usually like the angry husband, or society saying you can’t be together. In this case, those weren’t the blocks standing in the way of the love. So we really had to navigate what it is that these two people are fighting about. It’s not that there’s something telling them no. They themselves have to figure out how hard it can be.
JOHNSON: For me, I felt like it was refreshing for Birdie to own her sexuality, own who she was, and be able to have those boundaries and set her own limits on these boundaries. It was also refreshing that she was supported and cared for. I think playing Bertie was refreshing because I’m a giver, I’m a nurturer, and a caregiver. Sometimes what that looks like is that you’re giving and giving without setting healthy boundaries for yourself. By the end of it, you’re depleted. What I like is that there was just a healthy dose. There’s love there, but there are boundaries as well, healthy boundaries.
PEPPER: We all have the right to self determine our relationships, even if we are the only person in them. I think that’s something we see actively happening in the film as a principal that one might associate with polyamory, but that you can really track across all relationships. The nature and structure of relationships should be consensually determined by the people who are in them. And I love that at times you see two people, and at times three people in the film, and then you see four people in the film figuring it out.
I do think it’s interesting representing the relationship approach of a poly relationship, and I don’t want to say relationship style because there are so many different styles of poly relationships. When you step into the areas of non-monogamy so underrepresented, and often misrepresented through the mainstream cinema, there can be this kind of burden of representation happening. What I hope people can take with the film is that this is a polyamorous story, but it’s not about the relationship as an artifact, it’s about the experience of being in the relationship. I think that’s something that Marion did so skillfully. It’s about the interior lives of the characters within this relationship structure. It’s not about, “oh look, it’s a polycule”, and I think people can really appreciate that.
MARTIN: Bertie’s character goes through times where she can’t sing in the beginning of the film, but then when Lane comes back she is reinvigorated to sing, and when she does, it’s beautiful. Can you talk about the power of music in this film, and about Bertie’s song?
HILL: Coming from New Orleans you’re surrounded by music all of the time, and a musician’s wife is a very specific one, where you’re constantly being forced to share, to get up and get out there and share, and give, give, and give. I’ve seen friends who have gone through moments where they can’t give anymore, and they just kind of stop doing it. Everyone’s like, “Why? You’re so good.” I felt like that had to be key to Bertie’s character for me, and when I found out Idella also sang, it felt like it was meant to be.
Speaking specifically to Bertie’s song, which was composed with Mahmoud Chouki, we wrote that song before the film, before we even shot the film. And we recorded it before we shot it. Carmella Rappazzo wrote the lyrics. We thought initially that the song was Bertie’s song. Eventually when the song comes out and people look up the lyrics, they’ll see that it seems like Bertie’s song. She sings, “Don’t look at me, look away, your eyes see through me, with your gaze I will never be free.” And in that moment, it feels like she is singing to Lane, but then that song comes back at the end. My hope is that the folks that are really listening will be like that’s actually Lane’s song. Depending on where the characters are at the song reflects someone different. For me, that represents how I think of music, it’s just both very obvious and a very subtle way carrying us through a story.
JOHNSON: I think for me I definitely related to the part where Marion talks about the giving and sharing as a musician. Before we filmed, we actually talked about what it feels like when you’ve given so much. You give so much, you give so much, and then you get to this point where you’re depleted and I need to fill myself up again. As a music artist, you have moments where sometimes life happens, and you react to it, or it has an effect where something brings you down and it’s hard to create. I think that’s where you find Bertie at in the beginning. Even when she’s trying to sing, she can’t even find love in the music, or enjoy the creative side of it. This is because at that moment she needs to refuel and have new energy, you know? I think when Lane’s character comes back into the fold, that energy starts to ignite itself. That fire starts to rumble, and grow in her. By music being a driving force in Bertie’s life, that moment when she finally gets to sing, it’s like a release.
PEPPER: I think Lane is a character that is dating a performer, dating a musician, and there is often this dynamic that you see with people whose significant other(s) are musicians. In the end when Lane says to Bertie, “I want all of you”, it’s not about a poly thing. Lane wants from Bertie the all she gives in her performances in their relationship. Idella and I are both performers, we do LIVE performance in real life, so I relate to that experience. I relate because there is a way you can be vulnerable as a performer, as an actor, as a musician, that you can’t always be with another person.
MARTIN: What do you hope people will see in this film?
HILL: I hope people will see relationships and dynamics that inspire them to grow and learn, and reflect on themselves, and hopefully see something about themselves that makes them feel something.
JOHNSON: First of all, I hope while people are watching the film, they can have that feeling of just being taken away. I hope people can walk away from this like Marion said with a fresh new look on how to navigate love, life, and how they relate to relationships. And within those relationships people can be more open with each other and flexible. I hope people are able to relate to these characters and find something in themselves. I hope everyone can find something in themselves that they can take a piece of and say, “you know what? This is good.”
PEPPER: I hope people can have one moment of recognition and one moment of revelation, where they pause and go, “Oh, I see this in a different way.”