‘Nelly’ isn’t exactly a fun experience, but it’s a fairly fascinating one. The latest film by writer/director Anne Émond dives into the controversial life and work of author Nelly Arcan, a mysterious figure that the filmmaker doesn’t dare attempt to fully understand.
In Quebec and France, Arcan was the notorious author behind ‘Putain’ (roughly translated as ‘Whore’) loosely inspired by her time working as an escort. The book sold a massive number of copies and the young woman was both praised for her prose and derided for almost everything else. She wrote three more novels (all with mysterious streaks of autobiography) before committing suicide in 2009. Émond spent years researching Arcan, but doesn’t pretend to know any answers. Instead, her film is about the mystery of the icon, in ways both alluring and frustrating.
The movie unfolds through a variety of narrative strands that bump against each other. The remarkable actress Mylène MacKay portrays both Nelly Arcan and a few of the protagonists from her books, which may or may not also be her. The movie includes steamy scenes of playful prostitution, a disastrously co-dependent and drugged-up tale of youthful love, the surprise success of Arcan’s first novel, and the spiral of doubt and depression that became her downfall. For a while, it’s unclear that these stories aren’t all from a single life. For those (like myself) who have never read the author’s books, it’s nearly impossible to know that any of the stories are meant to be fiction until that’s overtly discussed on screen.
Obviously, this is not a conventional narrative, though one slowly forms and gels around the third act. Émond’s interests in the material are themes like doubt, depression, fear, fantasy, anxiety and suicide. They all eventually connect, just rarely with A following B or with C following suit.
MacKay is extraordinary in her series of roles that are essentially one big lead. She’s in every frame and wisely plays them all as Nelly, with only hairstyles to distinguish between timelines and fiction. She presents a façade of confidence masking a mountain of self-doubt and frustration. She’s able to command rooms, yet crumbles when left with her own thoughts. The movie features plenty of nudity and objectification, but she takes it in stride. Her character was defined and tortured by her beauty. It only makes sense that the actress should flaunt her own and find vulnerability in her posing. Émond sensitively handles all the salacious material to ensure that it always has purpose in her film. While certain moments may feel damn near exploitative, that’s only because the filmmaker intends to explore the nature of that exploitation.
As much as ‘Nelly’ is a film driven by images of sex, it’s first and foremost about the interior mind of the protagonist and what a messy place that is. The multi-narrative structure can frequently feel needlessly confusing and pretentious, often trying patience in the early going. However, eventually Émond makes it clear that’s all intended to represent the tortured and confused state of her protagonist. It’s also very much a film about the fragile ego of an artist and how painful the aging process can feel for women. What conclusions are meant to be drawn from all the titillation and depressing depths of a tortured mind aren’t always clear. Perhaps Émond didn’t even quite know what to make of Nelly Arcan and presented that confusion as part of her film.
‘Nelly’ is a flawed movie. It’s a little too ambitious and a little too vague at the same time. Granted, that’s kind of the point, but it will also undoubtedly irritate many viewers. Fortunately, when the film is firing on all cylinders towards the finale, everything more or less comes together in an intriguing and satisfying manner. We may never truly get to know Nelly Arcan, but Anne Émond suggests that there’s a good chance no one in her life ever really knew her either, least of all the author herself. Whether or not 100 steamy and confusing minutes of screen time is worth experiencing for that conclusion is something that most viewers will need to decide for themselves. Love it or loathe it, ‘Nelly’ grabs attention and makes a mark before slipping away, just like the tortured soul at the story’s center.