Film Review: Nelly

'Nelly' audaciously renders the contradictions and uncertainties of a writer’s inchoate life, even if its central figure remains slightly out of focus.
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Writer-director Anne Émond’s biopic Nelly was (per the requisite opening text) “inspired by the life and works of Nelly Arcan,” the prize-winning French-Canadian novelist and onetime prostitute. But the resultant portrait of a woman under the influence is far from your typical biographical drama. Émond allows herself poetic license to freely blur the boundaries between reality and fiction, much as Arcan did in her own books. The film also takes a resolutely nonlinear (albeit occasionally disorienting) approach to unfolding its narrative, frequently circling back to formative episodes in the young life of its protagonist. What we’re presented with is nothing less than the biopic as impressionistic fantasia.

That approach seems particularly apposite because, to a large degree, Nelly Arcan herself was a construct, an assumed persona. Born Isabelle Fortier in Eastern Quebec, Arcan published three novels (and finished a fourth) before committing suicide at the age of 36 in 2009. The film offers us fleeting glimpses into the multiple facets of Arcan’s existence: insecure writer, jealous lover, literary star, desperate junkie. Though the sequence of events can be a bit unclear from time to time, Josée Deshaies’ protean cinematography provides some aesthetic cues for orientation: There’s a hazy, grungy quality to drug-fueled sequences, an antiseptic feel to Nelly’s encounters with several johns, while, conversely, scenes in which she’s playing the cultural celebrity betray a lush romanticism.

Incidents from the early life of Isabelle (played as a girl by Mylia Corbeil-Gavreau) seem a little too neatly paradigmatic perhaps: There’s an ominous tarot card reading that intimates future unhappiness, and an episode of romantic disappointment that prompts some erotic self-exploration. But at least the opening sequence, with Isabelle lip-synching “Those Were the Days” for a school talent show, nicely counterbalances the wistful melancholy of the song’s lyrics with the girl’s native exuberance as her own vocals overtake the recording.

Émond makes a valiant effort to capture a life in all its contradictions and ambiguities. Nelly gives articulate and often poetic expression to Nelly Arcan’s feelings of hatred and contempt and dislocation, emotions that were directed with equal ferocity both externally and at the very core of her own being. The death that would eventually claim her was apparently rehearsed numerous times in both life and fiction. As she says at one point: “I appear to disappear.”

But elsewhere the film sometimes falters when it fails to elaborate on subject matter that would seem rich in relevant implications. There are scenes that dwell on (and slyly mock) the impact of the male gaze, and scenes that scrutinize a woman’s concern with her body image. Yet precious little is done with the real Nelly Arcan’s obsession with plastic surgery and its concomitant augmented existence, aside from one attenuated scene. Nor does the film much expound upon the feedback loop formed by Nelly’s preoccupation with surfaces, then finding herself judged solely by precisely those very surfaces.

What’s inarguable, however, is that Nelly is bolstered throughout by a committed, nuanced, sexy and soulful central performance from Mylène Mackay. This is a bravura showcase role that allows Mackay to assay a wide variety of moods and tones (as well as some chameleonic shifts in coiffure and costume), and Mackay never fails to convince. While the film’s vision of Nelly Arcan may ultimately remain just slightly out of focus (a notion that’s duly literalized in its final shots), Mylène Mackay’s powerhouse turn seems certain to resonate.