In “Nelly,” written and directed by Anne Emond, a Montreal filmmaker, actress Mylène Mackay gives a bravura performance in the provocative and ultimately sad story of the late Canadian novelist Nelly Arcan, born Isabelle Fortier. Her 2001 first book, “Putain” (“Whore”), a semi-autobiographical work about Cynthia, based on her own life as a prostitute, became a hit in Canada and France, won awards and made Arcan a highly controversial celebrity.
Emond has skillfully created a many-sided film that explores the various facets of Nelly’s life, from girlhood (the young Nelly is played nicely by Milya Corbell-Gauvreau), through relationships with men, both professionally as a sex worker and personally, her flaunting sexuality in public as well as suffering self-hatred in private, and ultimately leading to her committing suicide by hanging herself at the age of 36. Screenwriter-director Emond jumbles the time frames and mixes reality with Nelly’s voice-over thoughts, dreams and scenes from her novel, the first of four books that she wrote. This is a challenging role for an actress and Mackay makes the most of the opportunity, convincingly depicting Nelly in the turbulent variety of her life.
The sex is quite graphic, as we see Nelly working her wiles on an assortment of clients, faking the role of an ardent partner, but also joking with other prostitutes about their customers. The film also shows how one extremely rough client dangerously brutalizes Nelly way beyond her desire for a bit of rough sex.
The major personal relationship shown is with the handsome François, played dramatically by Mickaël Gouin. They descend into a morass of drugs and alcohol, and their best times are undermined by recriminations and battles creating an impossible situation. There is a constant in her friendship with her supportive male editor and publisher, who, for example, visits Nelly when she is at a rehab center.
Nelly turns on her sex appeal in public, and there is an embarrassing intimate scene in which she elaborately describes to her psychiatrist a sexual experience and shamelessly attempts to seduce him. Conversely, the film includes scenes with Nelly wracked by inner doubts about herself and her life, and these can be painful in their revelations.
The film does not actually show her suicide, but there is a scene in which she is preparing for hanging that telegraphs the ending. However, the director finally sensitively shows Nelly walking through a door into the world beyond her home, and we get the picture.
But before the film quietly ends, we have been given a complex portrait of a talented writer and a greatly disturbed woman who achieved fame by digging into the prostitution phase of her life and titillating a public that could either admire or scorn her in accordance with personal perspectives. A Cinema Libre Studio release. Reviewed September 3, 2018