Nelly Arcan: “Life has pierced me through.”
What, for contemporary women, is true agency? Is it being able to throw off the shackles of needing to conform to the expectations of others? The desire to secure approval of one’s physical attributes? The validation of one’s work or role in society? Ownership of one’s sexuality?
The film tells the story of Isabelle Fortier, who took the pen name Nelly Arcan. Her work is well-known in French-Canadian circles, as well in France. Her first book, Putain (Whore), hurtled to the top of the lists in Quebec in 2001, and sold over 30,000 copies in France.
In telling the personal history of Arcan, Émond employs a fluid approach to embody Arcan’s complicated and conflicting personas. The viewer watches the disjointed mashup of Arcan’s story, feeling the same turmoil that Arcan experienced. She is presented from her days as a school-age youth to the age of 36, when she ended her life in her Montreal apartment.
Mylène Mackay, the actress tasked with capturing the insecurities and false bravado of Arcan, delivers a brilliant performance. She serves up the dark-haired cocaine addict who is impossibly jealous; the dazzling blonde prostitute-celebrity; the demure, simply dressed author — all with equal authority.
A traditional biopic would have nailed down the basics of Arcan’s background, elaborating upon her small-town upbringing in a predominately Catholic area with rigid values. Arcan wrote that her main goal was to escape the suffocation of that life — whether it was the strictures of the nuns or being limited in her choices. She decided to come to Montreal to study literature at the Université du Québec.
Instead, Émond gives the audience glimpses of Arcan’s early life. We see her performing at a talent show, a precursor to how she will later find the spotlight not only appealing — but another form of intoxication.
Arcan’s mother is briefly depicted as a woman who sleeps excessively, most probably as a path to coping with the vicissitudes of daily living. This form of escapism, albeit benign, heralds an emotional fragility that will also be a part of Arcan’s makeup.
Arcan states, “Something in me was always lacking.”
Did that feeling emanate from the absence of a viable maternal figure in her upbringing? (Ironically, her handler at the escort service is a woman.) Did it stem from an early teenage experience where she watches the interactions of her sexually adventurous friend capture the attention of a boy she likes?
Arcan’s insecurities are clearly delineated in the depiction of the volatile on and off love relationship with her boyfriend, François. Not being the singular object of his devotion, at every moment, is devastating to her. A fog of alcohol and drugs elevates the slightest incident to explosion after explosion. Arcan laments, “People can stop loving you at any moment.”
Finding the control and adulation she craves in servicing men from all walks of life, Arcan tells them what they want to hear about themselves. She reflects back the illusions they crave to believe. Yes, each one is her favorite John. Yes, she wants desperately to be “fucked” by them.
When spending an evening with her friends from “the life,” they read online reviews of themselves and trade shop talk. Arcan is qualified by men as “a goddess, who loves her work.” Throughout the conversation, the contempt that the women feel for these men is palpable. In another sequence, Arcan tells a doctor that she has sex with ten to twenty clients per week. It is simply a matter of fact.
Observing herself in a mirror as she delivers up a compliant self to demanding customers, Arcan is complicit in her own commodification. When a john insists on anal sex, she refuses — only accepting when the price is sufficiently high enough. Nevertheless, he takes it one step further, coercing her to declare to him that she “likes it.”
Arcan begins to wonder if she “wants out.”
The most brutal scene relates an encounter with a well-dressed businessman, Patrick. Is he real, or is he a metaphor for those respectable men who engage prostitutes to act out their rage and violent urges? At first, Arcan tries to soothe him with the revelation that she too “likes it rough.” This time, her submission doesn’t work. He continues to viciously attack her. Fighting back, she escapes to the balcony, where she infers that she will jump to her death.
Later, a magazine interviewer asks Arcan about the episode in her book where a prostitute leaps from a twentieth-floor balcony to escape a sinister client.
“Did I write that?” she replies.
In her role as an author, Arcan noted that she “wrote with passion.” Yet, digging into her psyche was painful for her. Though she said, “Apart from writing, I am nothing,” she doubted her talents and was aware of the toll her self-examination took on her. She questioned if people only bought her book because of her face on the cover. Arcan’s qualms encompassed whether her other works would sell, and what the literary world would think of her — neither of which she could influence.
As portrayed, even in the solid connections Arcan had with her publisher, Mathieu, and during the work she did with her therapist, she still resorted to the use of sexual seduction as a means to struggle for dominance.
Unsurprisingly, Arcan spends time in a “rest home.” Recurring thoughts of suicide, failure, aging, and losing her ability to write, haunt her. She finishes the edits on what would be her final book, days before she dies.
Arcan was both appreciated and reviled. She was a finalist for the revered French literary awards, the Prix Médicis and the Prix Fémina. Perhaps the public couldn’t forgive her for living the life that she wrote about. Putain was a huge success, just as Émile Zola’s Nana was. Yet, his work was considered a naturalistic observation of French life in the decade from 1860–1870. Zola was the narrator of Nana’s life as a prostitute. Arcan was both observer and subject.
Using her writing to dissect her own neuroses and angst, Arcan delved into territory that was both raw and ugly. She explained to her therapist that she saw herself from outside herself. “It’s not really me. I watch her…I play that woman well. I need to be seen, but it’s not me I reveal.”
“Nelly” is an opportunity to ignite a larger discussion about the cultural conundrums Arcan sought to understand and define in her books.
Photo: Yan Turcotte for Cinema Libre Studio