Isabelle Fortier, known under the nickname Nelly Arcan, was a French Canadian luxury escort turned writer. She is known for “Putain” and “Folle”, two books that were highly successful both in Quebec and France. In 2009, she committed suicide. Anne Émond directed “Nelly”, a biopic telling her story, providing glimpses of Arcan’s inner angst and life events that led her to write her books…and, ultimately, to her end.
The first striking aspect of “Nelly” is the editing. The way her story is told feels like watching Arcan’s reflection through a shattered mirror, with pieces lying scattered all over the floor for the viewer to pick up. From glimpses of her teenage years to cold, crude moments of intimacy in the room where she met her clients, we get to know the protagonist under a multitude of angles.
I truly enjoy films that focus on one character (or very few) and in which the viewer gets to know that character through a multiple scenes that are not necessarily related to one another, but that truly depict the essence of that human being through its actions. And I would much rather watch this narrative process build its way through significant moments with minimal dialogue than through an ostentatious, linear narrative structure and overly talkative scenes. The thing is, that process usually requires a relatively simple chronology of events. The time line in “Nelly” serves the purpose of depicting how fundamentally hurt and confused Arcan was and how heavy life had become to her, so it does not feel completely hermetic or out of place. Moreover, it depicts multiple aspects of the protagonist’s character and mindset. A mind that was troubled, defeatist, and profoundly disturbed. However, it would be hard to deny that, over the run time of 100 minutes, it becomes a bit confusing, especially since the narration guiding us through feels just as scattered and impulsive.
Anne Émond’s film never dips its toes into melodrama, and never resorts to easy sentimental moments. The protagonist feels volatile and mysterious at all times, and the words in her narration strengthen this overall feeling. Despite its mature themes, I did not find this film overly difficult to watch. It has its moments here and there, but the oppression is truly built through the narration and Mylène Mackay’s performance, who plays Nelly Arcan in fascinating fashion. The highlights are undeniably the directing, the superb cinematography, and the cast, especially Mackay. Before seeing the film, I did not have much of an opinion on the character. I had seen some interviews, even started reading “Putain”, but never finished it. I remember thinking of her as a somewhat polarizing figure at the time, or someone who was trying to generate a bit of controversy. I obviously take those words back, as she was just a talented, troubled young woman struggling with constant self- loathing. “Nelly” was a true eye-opener in that regard. I highly suggest watching interviews with Arcan once you’re done watching the film.
On the downside, the love story at times feels authentic, but takes some abrupt turns and leaves the impression of being a little sketchy, and the film as a whole never elevates itself as high as it could have. It’s an emotional wasteland leading to a dead end. It just tells Arcan’s story in mixed up bits and pieces, without the presence of a bigger picture, without portraying something bigger than its protagonist, without even subtly taking position on universal themes like mental health, suicide, sexuality, the desire to please, etc.
It’s obvious that Anne Émond possesses the talent to pull this off, but maybe she felt that a biopic was simply not the proper vehicle to attempt such a prowess. I certainly will be watching Anne Émond’s other films, as she might have achieved it in her previous films (which I hear are great). Nevertheless, “Nelly” has undeniable qualities and is worth watching.