There are many divides in society today. Politically of course, but then there is income inequality, racial divisions, and, well, I could go on…
But what about the movie gap?
The chasm here seems to grow larger every day. By this I mean, those who enjoy independent-style movies versus what we would label “Hollywood” fare. A generation or two ago, one might have asked the question: are you a Beatles person or an Elvis fan? Today, we might wonder: are you Sundance or Marvel? I wouldn’t be surprised if this is already a Tinder prompt.
I bring this up because if you are to continue with this review you mostly likely have to be a Sundance person. In fact, the film under consideration, Ma Belle, My Beauty, won the Audience Award, at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Its bona fides as an indy-style movie could not be stronger, and that will alienate many even before fade in.
Indeed, Ma Belle, My Beauty has all the characteristics of a Sundance movie one would expect. It’s measured in its pace, character-based, and lacking a clear plot. Poison to some, ambrosia for others. So if you are Marvel, you might want to make that Dr. Strange motion and disappear into another dimension. In Ma Belle, My Beauty, you’ll find no major plot turns or twists. No star roles for ‘The Hollywood Reporter’ to dish about. There are no effects or Sorkin-esque dialogue.
Ma Belle, My Beauty is not escapism but a commitment.
The story is simple and merely a vessel for political and social posturing. Bertie and her husband Fred live in the South of France. They are a jazz team, she the chanteuse and he the trumpeter. But Bertie is in a slump and has refused to sing for many months. With a tour approaching and Bertie’s participation in doubt, Fred brings a former lover of theirs, a woman named Lane, to their villa. It’s unclear what this action is supposed to bring about, but it appears Bertie has never processed the love lost for Lane when she married Fred. So perhaps Lane’s presence will close this loop and free Bertie to sing again?
That’s my best guess at why Lane shows up at the villa but as noted it doesn’t really matter. Bertie’s decision to sing again or not is immaterial, because Ma Belle, My Beauty’s signaling rates higher than the journey of the characters. Its backdrop is an opportunity. An opportunity to put interracial, intersexual and international relationships center stage.
This is not a criticism of the movie but a fact. African-Americans, gay and bi-sexual men and women, Israelis, French, Spaniards, polyamorous arrangements. It’s all here, and it’s all cool. Food and Provence and soulful music and sex. Love given and withheld. It might sound like trouble on the surface, but the movie clearly aims to declare, despite the intricate relationships, this is the way it should be. There are no judgments of anyone’s race or nationality or the way they choose to live. In this isolated utopia people are free to lead messy lives with whomever they want to mess with.
Though I liked the film very much, I was confused by the Lane character. Everyone around her is beautiful and talented and exotic. Lane is the opposite. She’s plain looking, gangly and pale. She has no skills and no direction in life (except to possibly become a massage therapist). Yet all these gorgeous and gifted people are drawn to her for reasons unexplained.
Yet there is one possible answer. Is Lane a metaphor for we the audience? She’s ordinary with no high aspirations. She’s brought by Fred to snap Bertie out of her funk, but she doesn’t really belong on Olympus. On the surface that would seem to be the antithesis of the politics of the film which is to celebrate cross race, cross sex , and cross national partnerships. The very title of the movie, Ma Belle, My Beauty, implies a mélange, a blending of language and tribe. But the fact that Lane is an outsider and has not the looks or the powers the others do perhaps indicates she is not worthy of this life.
Maybe few of us are, and I have to believe this is purposeful, for Lane leaves at the film’s end with Bertie resurrected and her troupe ready to perform.
The creators of the film might not be aware of this contradiction, though one hopes they would consider it. From where I sit, one of the film’s intentions is to normalize previously taboo relationships, but is that advocacy undermined as Lane is expelled from heaven and the gods go on as before?
Movies have always been barrier breakers. Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Broke Back Mountain. Boys Don’t Cry. The Crying Game. And on. Ma Belle My Beauty continues in this tradition, though I don’t think it will be granted as big a stage as it deserves.
This is an unfortunate reality of the movie business these days, as the chasm in audience taste and access to material widens and ramifies. A generation or two ago, if you were Beatles or Elvis, you still would have been familiar with the other. Today, I doubt very much Marvel fans will seek out or have any exposure to a movie like Ma Belle, My Beauty….
But they should.
Blast Rating 3.5 out of 4 stars