A high-class prostitute by choice, Nelly Arcan’s colorful life is recreated in a multi-layered and stylish mix of make-believe and memoir, revealing Nelly’s alter egos: the neurotic writer, the vulnerable lover, the call girl and the star. Nelly shocked the literary world with her elegant writing and the lurid details of sex work in her autobiographical first novel, Whore, which became a critically acclaimed bestseller. Despite unprecedented success, Nelly’s remarkable life ended in tragedy.
A bright eyed, creative and lively young Isabelle Fortier shines on center stage in a school talent show, and hints at the gifted woman she would one day become. Even as a young girl, Fortier never fit the confines of her traditional Catholic upbringing and was too smart to see the world through the rose-colored glasses of childhood.
Director Anne Émond’s portrait of Nelly Arcan, the penname Fortier adopted, is one of a woman painstakingly aware of the ills of the world and torn apart by a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Presenting Arcan through the multiple personas she created for herself was a crucial element to the film, as Émond explained, "I spoke with some of her friends, boyfriends, editors, and it was like they were talking about 1,000 different people and I was like, 'Okay, she had a complicated life and she lied a lot!'"
Outside of the brief windows to Arcan’s childhood played by Milya Corbeil-Gauvreau, the film begins Arcan’s journey with her early days as a prostitute, aspiring author, and student at the University of Quebec in Montreal. The descent into chaos isn’t immediately obvious even to Arcan herself, played by TIFF Rising Star Mylène Mackay, as she lightheartedly jokes about clients with her friends, and treats her sex work as a tool for her writing.
Meeting with publishers, Arcan plays coy about the true stories of her title character, Cynthia, also her pseudonym as a sex worker, and leaves room for speculation on what parts of her first novel, the bestselling WHORE (2004), are fiction verses fact. Described by her publisher as ‘literary erotica’ Arcan’s experiences and personality are undoubtedly interwoven into Cynthia, describing herself as a raging misanthrope by nature, and a whore long before she took her first client. At first, the unexpected success of WHORE provides Arcan a sense of validation. Her words are being read, her stories heard, and the success of the book sales suggests she isn’t entirely alone.
As Arcan presents a glamorous public image to the media, her personal life unravels on screen. Her nihilistic worldview and constant exposure to the most perverse desires of the men who purchase her body compound the depression already brought on by her creative genius. NELLY frames the brief moments of euphoria and joy, the highest points of her life of literary success, the adoration and validation, with the gripping reality of her continued exposure to the men she sells herself to. With little to no concern for the human behind Arcan’s ‘Cynthia’ persona, they seek romance, rough sex, praise, control, and sometimes, to beat her head against a wall.
While Arcan continues a spiral into alcohol and drug dependence, she maintains her facade with her clients, who declare “she’s ravenous” and “loves her work.”
Her attempt at normal, a relationship with François, leaves Arcan more fractured as time goes on. François, a functional addict that doesn’t suffer from the same struggle of creativity, genius, and nihilism, connected with Arcan in a way no client ever could. Still, he fails to see the warning signs of the slow-motion collapse happening in front of him. When he finally does, the relationship is too far gone. Arcan plummets further into depression and addiction.
Arcan’s pre-occupation with suicide, known through her written work, permeates the visual representation Émond creates with Mackay’s portrayal of Arcan. Her facial expressions, her body language, and surroundings, capture the emotional wasteland on which Arcan floats, and later sinks.
A glimmer of hope comes when the well-dressed, publicly put together version of Arcan finds her way to a psychotherapist, but it is soon clear that the exterior is just another persona putting on a convincing show. In a state of desperation, Arcan attempts to seduce her psychotherapist, played by Marc Béland, and she becomes quickly shaken and ashamed by his rejection.
The belief that her work is not truly being read, with books being purchased solely because of her pretty face, the validation that stems from her top selling success quickly abandons her. The success of the public profile Arcan built for herself was further ruptured when her worlds collided, and a client recognizes her escort persona ‘Cynthia’ as Arcan the writer.
A touch by Director Anne Émond, Arcan finds herself in a Church confessional in deep reflection on her life, motivations, and the consequences of her choices. She declares that writing did not save her, but rather, it took her closer to death.
Arcan committed suicide on September 24, 2009. Perhaps to move on, perhaps to feel better, or perhaps because she believed in her own words, that “my future would happen with me.”
"People are always angry with those who take their life because they have the last word.” - Nelly Arcan