Anne Émond takes Nelly Arcan apart to tell her story

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Coming Soon

There are two reasons Anne Émond stands out among Canadian filmmakers working today. First, her films have fantastic insight into ailing minds. Her characters are often troubled, but they have agency and charm.

Also, she is structurally ambitious: Émond is not afraid of a fractured narrative if it helps her tell a story.

Emond’s 2015 drama The Loved Ones (Les Etres Chers) was a stunning, low-key dissection of a family torn apart by depression (worth seeking out). Her new movie, Nelly, is a character study of a damaged personality that’s based on the life and work of Nelly Arcan (the nom de plume of Isabelle Fortier).

The Quebec writer achieved notoriety for her raw, semi-autobiographical first-person novels. Her first book, Putain, fictionalized Arcan’s experience as an escort, never clarifying  which incidents happened, which were fabricated and which were a blend of real and made-up. That blurring of the lines became part of Arcan’s allure. She wrote four novels in seven years, won two literary awards in France and was short-listed for the Booker Prize.

Nelly Arcan was a knockout. She knew it and used it to build her image. But in the end, the pressures of a successful literary career plus a number of other factors — some known, some speculated and a few that will forever remain in the dark — were too much for Arcan.

Given the mysteries of Arcan’s life, making a movie about her had to be more daunting than the average chronological biopic. Leave it to Émond to split the complex figure into four personae (teenager, escort, junkie girlfriend, successful novelist) and allow the audience to draw their own conclusions. That’s a lot of chutzpah from a filmmaker dealing with the largest budget of her career.

Do you remember the first time you came in contact with Nelly Arcan’s work?

I was in film school. I became convinced Nelly was one of our most important writers: She wrote about desire, the quest for beauty, things we hide from ourselves. Nelly wrote in long sentences and created some cruel and cold images. There wasn’t a beginning, middle and end, you didn’t know what was happening, was it a dream or a nightmare? It felt almost physical. I remember the day she died [Sept. 24, 2009]. I found out through Facebook. I was so sad and angry. I took it personally, I thought she had many more novels in her.

How do you create a script about someone whose life was a mystery?

When I decided to write about her, I had no plan. I reread all her books, met her family and friends, publishers, boyfriends, everyone who wanted to talk to me. Her father would tell me very interesting things and the day after, a boyfriend would say something completely different. She lied a lot. Initially, I started writing a conventional biography, but after a year I decided it was very boring and not the truth, even though it was fact-based. She was such an eccentric and complex woman, with so many personalities — sex worker, writer, crazy lover — I came up with the idea of dividing her in four characters.

By the end of the process, did you have a better idea of what was fact and what was fiction?

No [laughs]. To be honest, after five years, the mystery feels even bigger. Other people who read Nelly Arcan’s books understood her differently. Re-watching the film, I realize there are parts of Nelly that are not in the movie. But the people who knew her have told me they recognize her and her need for validation.

Accidentally Prolific

To accentuate the differences between all four Nelly Arcans, Anne Émond instructed her leading lady — the terrific Mylène Mackay — to lose some weight while shooting Arcan’s teenager persona. The effect is striking.

You ask a lot of Mylène Mackay. How do you build a relationship with an actress that allows you to do that?

First, I’m completely honest. During casting, I allow the actors to read the entire script, so they know what to expect. Also, Mylène is a very strong woman, very committed, and we became friends. She is not the type of girl that would break or go crazy and neither am I. The shooting could have been horrible — there is a lot of violence, sex and big emotions — and it wasn’t.

Given all the time you dedicated to the Nelly Arcan project, did you come to any conclusions about her mental health?

I couldn’t get access to her medical records, but according to some of the testimonies I collected from people close to her, she may have suffered from bipolar or borderline personality disorder. She saw a lot of doctors but never accepted medication. I think she may have been depressed, and dealt with it by taking alcohol and drugs.

You have put out two movies out in two years. What’s your secret?

That’s probably why I’m sick! It’s not my rhythm. I wrote for two years after my first film (Nuit # 1, 2011) and my two scripts got financing very fast. I’ve been lucky in a way, but now I’m starting to write again. It feels so good. I don’t know what my next film will be, but I have a lot of ideas and I feel free to try anything. I will take my time.