Nelly Arcan shocked the literary world with elegant phrasing and lurid details of sex work in her semi-autobiographical first novel, Putain (Whore), which became an international best-seller in 2001. A prostitute by choice, Nelly’s fragmented life is laid bare in a stylish mix of make-believe and memoir, revealing a woman lost between irreconcilable identities: the neurotic writer, the vulnerable lover, the call girl and the star. Despite literary success, the French Canadian’s remarkable life ended in tragedy.
A bright-eyed young Isabelle Fortier lights up on center stage in a school talent show, hinting at the desire for adoration that contrasts with the confines of her traditional upbringing.
Fortier became a high-end escort during college and adopted the name Nelly Arcan as a nom-de-plume when she wrote her 2001 semi-autobiographical first novel, Putain [2001; English: Whore (2004)], about a sex-worker named Cynthia who addresses the rigors of the profession to her psychoanalyst while often contemplating suicide. The metafictional transparency Arcan brought to the novel catapulted her into the public eye when it became an international best-seller and was nominated for two of French literature’s most prestigious prizes, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina (as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize for the English adaptation). Although little known in the English-speaking world, Nelly became one of Quebec's most loved and most hated public figures and a household name in both Canada and France due to her unflinching tell-all approach to life as a sex worker, her over-the-top glamour, and her ability to attract media attention.
In literature and in life, with Nelly the question was: What was fact and what was fiction?
I didn't dream up those men, the thousands in my bed, in my mouth.
I invented nothing of their sperm on me, in my face, in my eyes.
Additional books followed Putain. Nelly’s works--there were a total of four--all dealt with death and gender, particularly the self-destructive obsession many women have with beauty, youth and being objects of desire for men. According to Chloe Taylor (Birth of the Suicidal Subject: Nelly Arcan, Michel Foucault, and Voluntary Death): “In her life, this fixation on appearance, sustaining youth, and receiving sexual affirmation from men led Nelly into the worlds of pornography, prostitution, and cosmetic surgery. Each of these themes is treated critically in Nelly’s writings, and yet, as was often pointed out to her in interviews, Nelly remained deeply complicit in them.” (Emily M. Keeler, The National Post)
The author’s struggle to match the success of Putain (Whore) with her subsequent novels combined with drug addiction, crippling self-doubt, obsession with death, and the relentless glare of the spotlight became a lethal combination. The writer committed suicide in 2009, three days after delivering her fourth manuscript.
The tragedy, when people love you
Is they can stop loving you
At any moment.
NELLY is a creatively imagined biopic, told with a non-linear timeline that uses flashbacks, excerpts of Nelly’s prose, and scenes from Putain, as well as some full-sail creations, that re-envisions the literary star’s manic ascendancy until her death at age 36. Written and directed by up-and-coming Canadian filmmaker, Anne Émond (Nuit #1, Les êtres chers) who wrote an impressionistic, lyrical script that reflects different aspects of Nelly’s persona; a self-assured sex worker, the junkie/lover, the affirmation-obsessed writer, and the starlet. A few scenes capture formative moments in the life of young Isabelle Fortier.
To fully articulate Nelly personas, since the truth was well-obfuscated by the source, 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!'"
‘Toronto Rising Star’ actress Mylène Mackay delivers a towering performance, inhabiting four Arcan personas: the prostitute, the insecure author, the attention-hungry media darling and the vulnerable lover/junkie. Milya Corbeil-Gauvreau plays the young Isabelle Fortier.
In the childhood scenes, Nelly, who was raised in a conservative Catholic family in Eastern Townships of Quebec, and a talented pianist, is drawn into the world of sexual exploration as a pre-teen as a means to gain attention and validation. When a “faster” girlfriend attracts the boy she’s interested in, the rejection turns Isabelle/Nelly towards exploring her own sexuality.
As a student at the University of Quebec in Montreal, Isabelle/Nelly takes up prostituting: …like everybody else wanting to leave the country for the city…ending up as a barmaid, then a whore, to escape every shed of my past identity so I could prove to others that you really could pursue your studies, dream about being writer, hope for a future and throw your life away here and there all at the same time…(Putain) In the film, she’s shown falling into a passionate, drug-enhanced relationship with François (played by SNL Quebec’s Mickael Gouin. Although a meaningful relationship develops, albeit one marked by dysfunction and her work, François’ wandering eye adds to Isabelle/Nelly’s neediness, leaving her more fractured and bent towards nihilism.
One man in my life would be dangerous; too much hatred in me for one head.
Nelly’s introduction to the trade is not specifically depicted, however the early days ofherbsex work is revealed in scenes that show how she was much in demand and able to earn top dollar, “Warning, you'll be addicted to Cynthia in no time.” Clients declare “she’s ravenous” and “loves her work.” As she becomes more successful, her taste for the good things in life grows as does her obsession with her own looks and her mortality. Mirrors figure prominently in Isabelle/Nelly’s life and her works.
Beauty is a weapon that subjugates.
Beauty is an order that commands immobility and contemplation by all.
Nelly as sex worker is depicted through scenes of “Cynthia” which is also the name used for her protagonist in Putain. Dissatisfaction with the work grows including violent interludes with clients who force sex acts on her that she’d rather not perform (until the right price is offered) culminating in a graphics scene of sexual assault.
Nelly’s pre-occupation with suicide, known through her written work, permeates the visual representation Émond creates with Mackay’s portrayal of Nelly. Her facial expressions, body language, and surroundings capture the emotional wasteland on which Nelly floats and later sinks.
Meeting with her publisher for the first time, a self-doubting and prim Nelly dissembles on the nature of her protagonist (Cynthia) while also lying about her own age since she wanted to be published before she was 30.
At first, the unexpected success of Putain provides Nelly a sense of validation. Her words are being read, her stories heard, and the success of the book sales (30,000 copies in first run) suggests she isn’t untalented. She becomes a sensation and plays up to the media, a sexualized starlet, to the shock of the Quebec glitterati (in an era before self-exposing selfies and Kardashian glamour was a global thing). In conversations with her therapist, Nelly (or Cynthia) reveals insecurities and uses sex as a weapon attempting to seduce her psychotherapist, played by Marc Béland, as a means to turn the questions.
I see this blonde woman,
lying on the couch facing her analyst.
But I'm not that woman.
Though I play that woman well.
I need to be seen,
but it's not me I reveal.
So I disappear a bit.
The insecure writer, shown working on a later novel, grapples with declining book sales, wondering if books are being purchased solely because of her pretty face. The success of the public profile Nelly built for herself is ruptured when a client recognizes her escort persona ‘Cynthia’ as Nelly the writer.
In the one fully recreated scene envisioned by director Anne Émond, Nelly 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.
“People are always angry with those who take their life because they have the last word.”
- Nelly Arcan
In real life, Nelly’s final embrace of suicide was triggered by a public appearance on the celebrity talk show “Tout le monde en parle” on September 16, 2007, in which she appeared in a low-cut dress that revealed her augmented attributes in contrast to the writer Nelly “who savages practices of desirous objectification in her books.”
Says Mackay and Emond in a joint 2017 interview with Montreal Gazette:
Nelly’s stance on women’s issues, and the critique of gender roles running through her work, made her more than just a frank-talking sex object, according to Mackay.
“I’m very proud of the film,” she said. “There’s a feminist mission in the movie. It talks about the beauty obsession, the culture of youth, the tyranny of the gaze of others, and the male gaze. Those are subjects we don’t talk about that much in films.”
Émond voiced a similarly profound connection to Nelly’s writing when I caught up with her and Mackay this month. She cited parallels to themes she has been exploring in her own work.
“She talks about being a woman, in chilling fashion,” Émond said. “I touched on it a bit in Nuit #1 — what is sexuality, for a woman? How can we assume our desires, while being respected? Nelly broaches these topics in such lucid, cynical ways.
“My film isn’t seeking to titillate people. There’s something more cerebral and distant going on. I’m not trying to make the audience cry at the end. I was looking to stimulate people intellectually. I think Nelly was, too.”
In Nelly/Isabelle’s own words:
For a while I thought writing would save mebut writing took chunks out of me.
Writing brings you too close to death.
I invented Nelly to protect Isabelle, but I think the opposite happened.