TIFF Review: 'Nelly'

(Canada, 101 min.)
Written and directed by Anne Émond
Starring: Mylène Mackay, Mylia Corbeil-Gavreau, Mickaël Gouin, Francis Leplay
Programme: Vanguard (World Premiere)

[This image has been removed due to Google censorship. Clearly, the kids at Google are terrified of seeing a woman in a dress.. But if you want to see the offending picture deemed "adult content," you can see it here thanks to Google Images!]

Anne Émond’s Nelly will haunt you. The director of Nuit #1 and Les êtres chers returns with her most provocative film yet. Nelly brings together themes and tendencies of Émond’s previous films in a singular work as she envisions an avant-garde biography of late writer Nelly Arcan in a dark, tempestuous illustration of the author’s fractured psyche. It’s a hypnotic portrait of a complicated and elusive figure.

Stylistically, Nelly is more in the vein of Nuit #1 with its edginess and seductive atmosphere, but the complex screenplay recalls the haunting interplay between past and present within the family tragedy of Les êtres chers. Nelly is a spellbinding reverie as Émond dives deep into her character’s subconscious with beguiling mise en scène that imperceptibly transports the author between different realities while the cinematography by Josée Deshaies seduces the viewer with its dark and lush imagination of Arcan’s carefully composed lives.

Émond explores Arcan’s tormented mind by crosscutting the various characters of the author’s persona. There’s Arcan the writer, who shoots to fame when her 2001 book Putain (Whore) becomes a runaway bestseller for its dark and salacious tale of a prostitute named Cynthia. Nelly says in the film that some elements of the book draw upon her own experiences, and Émond plays with the elements of art and life that intersect within Arcan’s prose as she introduces Cynthia, the saucy prostitute of the book, who doubles as Arcan’s own experience as a sex worker. Other aspects of Arcan’s biography and fiction appear in competing storylines with the writer at the age of a budding pre-adolescent dreamer and as a haggard white trash junkie who personifies the darkest corners of Arcan’s mind. Elements of Arcan’s fiction overlap into her life and vice versa as fiction and reality become indistinguishable as actions in one story mirror another and the film culminates with tragic ends for all parties.

TIFF Rising Star Mylène Mackay plays all these characters (save for the youngest) in a tour de force performance. She is sultry, poised, and an image of graceful elegance as the author, who flirtatiously commands a press conference like a Hollywood starlet. As Cynthia, she is saucy and strong, a woman who owns her sexuality with confidence and, unlike Arcan, doesn’t give two fucks about the way the world perceives her. The same icy and detached woman exists beneath the surface of all of Nelly’s personas, though, as Mackay’s entrancing performance shows that no person can entirely re-write her identity. Nelly cannot escape herself as her insecurities plague the characters in each thread of the film. Mackay has incredible screen presence and is undoubtedly destined for stardom with the impressive range of characters she creates in Nelly.

Nelly Arcan is every one of these women and none of them at the same time as MacKay creates a complex, multifaceted woman who loses herself in the tragedy of her characters and in the all-consuming drive of the creative process. Spending so much time in one’s own head is a dark and dangerous endeavour, and Émond’s hypnotic puzzle pieces these shards together to create a woman whose identity exists within the various fragments of herself that she gives away to readers. As the shards of Arcan’s tragic life collide, it’s impossible to leave without the impact of Nelly embedded in one’s mind, haunted for days to come.

Nelly opens January 20, 2017 from Les Films Séville.

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