Nelly (NR)

Drama 101 min. September 7, 2018
By Tatiana Craine
In Nelly, director Anne Émond attempts to weave real-life Quebecois sex worker–turned-novelist Nelly Arcan’s alter egos into a complex tale of artistry and vulnerability. The filmmakers forgo straightforward biopic conventions, setting the mood with revealing, meandering vignettes inspired by Arcan’s life and characters. Émond’s dizzying jumps between timelines mimic the writer's penchant for blending autobiographical details with high drama. Luckily, actress Mylène Mackay ably slips into disparate roles as a young call girl, a fragile writer starving for affirmation and Arcan’s larger-than-life fictional persona, among others.

Cinematographer Josée Deshaies bathes the performers in bright and natural light, a refreshing antidote to other films that trap sex workers in literal and metaphorical darkness. With three women driving the film — director, cinematographer and star — reflections on double standards and power dynamics between men and women are on display in every scene, from a therapist and his sexualized patient to a manipulative boyfriend and his hysterical girlfriend.

In one striking sequence, Deshaies follows Mackay as her character slinks through a stuffy cocktail party in a sparkling gown, as effervescent as the Champagne she downs. She cuts a statuesque, sensual figure and lures a man — said to be the next young genius of his generation — onto the dance floor. Once there, she suddenly appears both garish and childlike in her quest for his attention. She flops like a rag doll while he remains dignified, barely hiding his embarrassment. Ultimately, the strings tying these stories together are loose to the point of confusion. In Nelly, the writer’s fascinating and tragic story is fragmented, resulting in an incomplete, symbolic portrait of very real and complicated woman at its core.
Anne Émond Mylène MacKay, Marie-Claude Guérin, Emmanuel Schwartz Anne Émond Cinema Libre Studio

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