With Nelly, Anne Emond takes us into the scandalous life of writer Nelly Arcan, who burst into the literary establishment with her first semi-autobiographical novel: Whore.
Born Isabelle Fortier, Arcan became an escort girl while studying the relationship between literature and madness at the University of Montreal. Detailing her sexual encounters with an unapologetic raw prose, she was thrown into the limelight with her nomination as a finalist for the coveted Medicis and Femina awards. Her tragic death sent shockwaves through detractors and admirers alike. “Is it possible to expose yourself as a woman and to be an artist in this world?” declares Emond. “The day I found out about Nelly’s suicide, I immediately thought about all the young women who were destroyed in the public arena. Is it a fatality to be a great artist? The sensibility of this woman allowed her to write, but that same sensibility killed her.”
The fictionalized biopic dives into her mind, examining the contradictions between her unabashed life and her obsession with being validated by others, from her family to her lover, her clients, and ultimately by the public at large. Refusing to portray her as a victim, the director admires her courage: “What I like in Nelly, is that she went all the way. I never wanted to imply that society killed her. No. She died into life head first.”
BIRET: What was your approach to screenwriting?
EMOND: I interviewed many people for my research, and from one person to the next, I discovered a different Nelly. She did not want to deceive anyone and lied to mold reality to her desires. She was a mystery for many people, and a mystery for herself as well. Not knowing whom to trust, and steering away from fabricating a story, I read her books over and over again, and underlined major themes that I divided into folders. It is then that I realized that Nelly constantly analyzed the image she projected onto the world, and that a large number of pages made references to suicide or death. Her desire to die interrelates with her own devouring reflection in the mirror. We actually used a mirror to introduce Nelly’s identities as characters she would write to herself.
BIRET: How did you translate Nelly’s style and personality for the screen?
EMOND: I saw photos of her as an escort, and she had a very nineties look, with tight jeans and a very fitting top to accentuate her breasts, but I was not interested in that look. I wanted to add dimensions to the story, to expand it to something more universal.
Deconstructing female archetypes overused in literature or movies, from the young and innocent girl to the whore, the destructive lover and the star, Emond worked closely with cinematographer Josée Deshaies to create a sophisticated color palette, and with costume designers Simon Bélanger and José Manuel St-Jacques on a wardrobe inspired by female artists whose lives also ended tragically: Marilyn Monroe, Amy Winehouse and Virginia Woolf.
Actor Mylène MacKay embodies the plurality of these roles with a powerful punch. She is flamboyant to woo the object of her desire, and electrifies a sea of conformists with a gold sequined dress reminiscent of Monroe’s iconic attire for singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President”. When she sinks into despair with her drug addicted boyfriend, her black wig is a light nod to Winehouse, and when she settles down for introspection, her turtlenecks are a modern interpretation of outfits worn by Woolf. Of course you will see MacKay in various stages of undress but the emotional polarities of these scenes are as complex as Arcan’s writings.
Emond then interweaves these personas into a non-linear storyline, complete with flashbacks to a prepubescent Isabelle in the first throes of jealousy, leading to intimate details of her sexual awakening.
BIRET: Were the scenes of Isabelle growing up based in reality or fiction?
EMOND: All the emotions are real. While reading her publications, I imagined the challenges she might have faced as a young girl. It was an integral part of her personality to want to be seen, to be the most beautiful one.
BIRET: When her customers grade her as a top commodity, her satisfaction quickly turns into sadness. Did you create this type of interruption to make her more endearing?
EMOND: There is something very flexible in the film to allow viewers to make their own opinion about her. She was ashamed of her life. Once she conquered someone’s attention, she did not want it anymore, she felt disgusted. She wrote at length about this.
BIRET: Did Nelly become trapped by her quest for perfection and her thirst for validation?
EMOND: Her last book was less daring and did not fare as well as she had hoped. She killed herself right before it was published. She must have felt that it was not as good and could not live up to that failure. With her original pseudonym, Nelly tried to remain anonymous. But with fame, she could not resist at being recognized. It was a reckless thing to do. She lost herself along the way, she had a hard time reconciling everything to herself.
BIRET: From “Night #1” to “Nelly”, the protagonists, male or female, are longing for something they do not fully grasp, a connection to the ethereal.
EMOND: It’s a universal theme about people who feel tortured internally, people who have a difficulty to live a daily life, and look for a meaning. It’s very heavy. It’s an existential crisis.
BIRET: It’s not uncommon to read about male writers who were promiscuous and advocated intoxication to transcend their creative limitations. However, women in the arts are often condemned for their excesses and judged for their look.
EMOND: Nelly drank a lot, took cocaine and medications. But she was never drugged out. This is not what killed her, even when she drank to forget. We expect too much of women. We ask them to be sexy, but not too much, or their reputation gets tarnished, and they lose their credibility. This film relates to all women, all artists. It’s about what it means to be a woman.
BIRET: Music holds an undeniable spell onto your storytelling process. In “The Loved Ones” for example, lyrics are edited as clues to a hidden subplot, allowing us to peak into the protagonist’s relationship to the eternal. Here, Charlotte Cardin’s “Dirty Dirty” is a haunting match for Nelly’s angst. What is your approach to working with music?
EMOND: Music is an integral part of my work, from story concept to production and post production where I worked hand in hand with editor Matthieu Bouchard Malo. I selected the songs early on, because I use them as an inspiration to write the screenplay. We also played some of the tracks while filming on the set.
Nelly is undeniably an unsettling but fascinating film. Throughout the plot, Emond builds a precipice towards which the character is going to ride the excess of her emotions into the abyss. There is an overpowering sincerity in her final words leading to her suicide, and I asked Emond if this part of the voice over narrative came from her books. “For these last sentences, I inserted my own words into the voice over narration.”
BIRET: Did this film cause an emotional catharsis for you?
EMOND: I cried when Nelly died. I felt I was in danger as well. I asked myself if she could have had a different life. Right now I feel more at peace with myself. My next film will be more superficial. For Nelly, the superficiality was inside her image, it was the glamour, the artificial character. She was like a broken doll in the cloakroom, an unsurpassed beauty.
BIRET: What are you currently working on?
EMOND: I finished the first version of a new script: “Young Juliette.” It’s the first time I am working on a comedy. It’s about a young 13-year-old girl who is overweight but she does not care about her weight. This does not mean that she is strong; it’s more that she does not realize that she looks different than others. Actually, this makes her more endearing. I am working on this film with a softer, more humoristic approach.
Rest assured, the award-winning director intends to keep on tearing apart our preconceived notions of beauty, love and talent, along with fellow innovative Canadian directors such as Xavier Dolan, Simon Lavoie or Kim Nguyen. But there is one thing she hates with a passion: To be referred to as a “woman director.” “It’s unbearable in this trade to be asked what it means to be a female director. That’s perverse.”