When I was 7 years old, I saw Claude Miller’s film “L’effrontée” playing on the TV one Sunday afternoon when I had nothing else to do. Even though I was probably way too young for the film, I stuck to it because 13 years old Charlotte Gainsbourg fascinated me. It was the first time I had seen a film that wasn’t a blockbuster. I remember watching it in a state of shock. I was hooked. Later, when I was 15 years old with red hair, vintage clothing, and an obsession with moving out of the little village where I was born, I saw “Trainspotting” at the movie theatre and that was it: I would either do heroin OR become a filmmaker. I chose the latter!
What sparked your interest in Nelly Arcan?
I was studying at film school when Nelly Arcan published her first book, “Whore.” I’ve read all her books with great admiration since then. I was fascinated by her work – I still think that she is one of our best writers here in Quebec, with Réjean Ducharme and Hubert Aquin – but I was also disturbed by her. She had a very strange public presence, she was physically very “fake,” her speeches and media appearances were disconcerting. She was very smart, and at the same time, very annoying… When I learned about her suicide in the news, I was sad, but I was also angry. It was so inevitable, she wrote about her own death hundreds of times. I immediately thought about iconic artists: Virginia Woolf, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Seberg, Sylvia Plath, and later Amy Winehouse. Then, I thought about me and about my own friends. I took her death personally, in a strange way. It made me ask myself delicate questions. Do we, as female artists, have to suffer? I mean, do we have to die to be taken seriously? Do we have to be sacrificed and mythologized to exist through history?
Also, are we allowed to get old? Can you be a beautiful woman and get old in the eye of the public? Nelly Arcan couldn’t, apparently. The day of her suicide, I was sad, angry and I opened a file named “Nelly” on my computer. I thought it was rich matter for a film. It took around 5 years between the idea, and the production.
What was the production process like?
We shot the film in 30 days, mostly in Montreal and its suburbs, with an Alexa camera. Josée Deshaies – the amazing DOP – and myself, fought for 35 mm but it seemed to be impossible with our budget, unfortunately. To be honest, it was a difficult shooting, emotionally. Josée Deshaies, the DOP, Mylene Mackay, who plays Nelly in the film, and myself became very obsessed by Nelly Arcan. We were almost under her spell. I’m not an esoteric person at all, but shooting this film was intoxicating, I had the strange feeling that “she” (Nelly) was constantly looking at me, at us. I know it sounds crazy, but this is how it was. Every day was challenging and dark: sex scenes, violent scenes, self-hate scenes, suicide scenes, despair scenes… Mylene and I just stuck to each other and jumped into the battlefield together. But the atmosphere was sombre, overall, I would say. I’m not a dark person, Mylene is not, either. When it ended, we both needed fresh air. It was like coming out of a nightmare. I think the film, for the viewer, also works a little bit like a nightmare.
Does the film keep to the true history of Nelly Arcan’s life?
Yes and No. I would say that not everything factually happened, but everything is true. Nelly wanted to be the most stunning women in the room and the most desired one. In the film, this personality trait is shown in the ballroom scene, where she is drunk and dances with the most important man in the room. Humiliation was one of her obsessions and most feared state; she gets humiliated many times in the film… so I would say that the feelings, the obsessions, the feelings despair are true, but not all the events are.
There are fictional elements in the film, one of which is the scene of Nelly in a church. What made you feel as though she may have been using her persona as Nelly Arcan, to protect herself as Isabelle?
The church scene would be the only one where it is entirely me speaking. After years of research I concluded that no one could explain this woman, but that I had to be brave and at least try to express what I thought happened. Nelly Arcan is Isabelle Fortier’s pseudonym. It is very interesting when you think about it. A pseudonym is usually chosen to protect the artist real identity, but strangely, Nelly Arcan became one of the most “exposed” writers in Quebec history. She made all those decisions. She is not a victim and I don’t want to show her that way. She decided to expose herself, to give interviews, to go to TV shows, after writing her book WHORE based on her own experience as an escort; based on her twisted family relationships; based on very private matters.
It was, in my opinion, very brave but very dangerous at the same time. She lost control. I think she lost control on every part of her life. She lived on the edge and, eventually, everything that would make her feel alive would also kill her. Being a successful writer made her alive, but it also killed her to live with the constant anxiety of not being able to renew this success. Being a beautiful, sexy and desired woman made her alive, but it killed her to live with the anxiety of getting older, less desirable. Being in passionate love stories with intoxicating partners made her alive but also killed her, of course.
How difficult was it to cast the role of Nelly, given the complex role the actress would have to play showing so many sides of one individual?
I knew the casting for Nelly was the most important decision I had to make. We saw many actresses in auditions. We were not looking for a physical resemblance, we were looking for a vibe. We were looking for an actress who could play literally everything. I think Mylène Mackay is stunning in this part. She IS everything: whore, writer, lover, intellectual, smart, stupid, sexy, ugly, irresistible, odious, strong, fragile...
For US viewers unaware of Nelly Arcan’s literary fame in Canada and Europe, could you explain why she was such a polarizing figure, loved by some, and hated by others?
I think she was mostly hated by the people who hadn’t read her (I notice it’s often the case, we hate what we don’t know, stupidly!). Also, she was complex. And sadly, I think people are afraid of paradoxes and complexity. Her books and her speeches were erudite, clever, analytical yet her look was vulgar, almost obscene: fake breasts, fake lips, fake blond hair. She was confusing, and we don’t like to get confused I guess.
People thought that she nonsensical, denouncing female exploitation but looking as a bimbo. They never realized that she was the best person to denounce this enslavement, being a slave herself and at the same time being such a good writer.
What did you hope audiences would walk away thinking about Nelly Arcan?
The best thing to hear, for me, after a screening, is that the audiences are curious. They want to read her books.
How do you think the film fits in the #metoo era?
We are in the middle of the movement. I believe things are changing genuinely and we won’t go back. But it is still to early to measure the changes. I’m often wondering what Nelly Arcan would write about the recent events, and I’m pretty sure her analysis would be bold and accurate.