I can honestly say that I’ve never heard of Nelly Arcan. When I read the logline for this film, I was instantly intrigued!
“Nelly” is directed by Montreal-based Canadian director and screenwriter Anne Émond. It's based on the life of high-end prostitute turned international best selling author, Nelly Arcan. Our story follows Isabelle Fortier who goes by “Nelly Arcan” later in life – a pen name of her choosing. She was a top-line escort that later adopted the pseudonym “Nelly Arcan” while writing her first novel, Putain (Whore), which contained elements that pertained to her own life at the time. The book shot her into superstardom and became an international best-seller, winning two of France’s most prestigious literary awards: The Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina. As time went on, she struggled to match the success of her debut novel. She became doubtful of her skills and spiraled downward into drug usage, alcoholism, and crippling depression. She ended up committing suicide in 2009.
“Nelly” is told in a non-linear fashion, which was one of the things that fascinated me about it. The narrative shifts between young Isabelle, Nelly Arcan, and Cynthia – the character Nelly created in Putain. Mylène MacKay captures the character of Nelly (and Cynthia) incredibly well. She moves swiftly through these various layers - giving us small glimpses at the unwavering sadness that’s lurking beneath her risqué and playful outer shell.
Ultimately, this is an emotional look at a woman seeking affection and fearing abandonment. We occasionally see flashbacks to her childhood that give us insight into how long this craving has been around. From the very beginning, we see a young Isabelle performing at a talent show - dancing and mouthing along to a French song playing over the speakers. As she begins to sing the lyrics out loud, her mother motions to her to bring the volume down. The look in Isabelle’s eyes shows how that one action quickly extinguishes the passionate fire that resided within her. It’s small maneuvers such as this that have squandered her over the years, causing her to search in the worst sort of places for anyone that would be willing to give her attention. She became so obsessed with beauty and perfection – thinking that it would make her interesting and more attractive to others - that it drove her down a path of self-destruction and, eventually, suicide. Mylène MacKay captures these moments of self-doubt and handles them with such care and precise execution. Anne Émond compels the viewer to dig into the emotional psyche of Isabelle/Nelly by using poetic words from her own novel as narration that coincides with moments in her life. These multiple layers of Isabelle feel like a puzzle - the more she unravels and the layers start to mesh, it begins putting itself together.
Though occasionally bogged down by a slow pace, “Nelly” is a tale that will intrigue you while simultaneously breaking your heart. It opens today, September 7th, in New York City and in Los Angeles on September 14th!