Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It's Mylène MacKay's committed performance in the lead role that really gives this film its power."

In 2004, a strong new voice emerged in the French literary scene. Nelly Arcan (born Isabelle Fortier) attracted attention for two reasons: her elegant prose and the fact that she was writing about sex. For most people, the focus was on the latter. Nelly was a call girl and yes, parts of the book were apparently based on her experiences. Long before the English-speaking world got excited about the diarist Belle de Jour, French speakers were asking themselves how it could be possible that a woman who sold sexual services for a living could write with such skill.

The obvious answer, that women's sexual behaviour is unrelated to their intellectual capacity, didn't seem to occur to anyone.

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Inhabiting the social space created by all this confusion and excitement could not have been easy. It's one thing to present one's body as a commodity, quite another to live with the endless objectification of one's soul. Anne Émond's fragmented biopic attempts to explore this experience, to identify the threads that led to Nelly's tragic end and to understand who she was as a person. It does this with varying degrees of success but it is intriguing throughout.

The public image of escorting is an industry that depends on beauty, so it's fitting the this film should be beautifully shot; beneath the surface, both are far more about personality. Beauty, in the end, is not hard to find if one has money - for a call girl (or a writer) to keep 'em coming back takes something else. It's Mylène MacKay's committed performance in the lead role that really gives this film its power. This would be a challenge for any actor. The joie de vivre of Nelly the star, on the hunt for attention, is fun to watch but, of course, a very conscious performance. The mask of depression suffocating Nelly's real emotions, limiting her ability to connect with the world, creates further difficulty. MacKay is impressive in her ability to work with these layers, letting neither pain nor playfulness overwhelm her character and giving us poignant glimpses of the person underneath.

This is difficult material. The combined effect of the depression and the extent to which we see Nelly through others' eyes risks presenting her as somebody impossible to understand, the mysterious Other so swathed in feminine mystique that she is not permitted a real personality. On the other hand, there is a risk of her becoming just another tragic figure, a young woman destroyed because she dares to explore her desires. It's MacKay who ensures that the film largely steers clear of this territory. We get the sense that her Nelly would be depressed no matter what she was doing for a living. in a key scene with her psychiatrist, she describes the sensation of watching herself from a distance. In another, contemplating suicide, she arranges a mirror. On is reminded of Performance and the fate of its director. A third scene, towards the end, suggests that somewhere along the way she has lost track of what she has created as fiction and what is part of her own story.

If this sounds like heavy going, it is, but it's relieved by the aforementioned beauty, by intermittent eroticism and by humour, some of which will be grasped more easily by those with experience in the same trades. In the opening scene, Nelly flirts with a nervous client who asks her to suck him. Perhaps he's simply acting out his fantasy but the implication is that he's seeking escape from having to look her in the eye. Nelly's directness frightens people as much as it excites them. A fictional version of her is easier to deal with, and it becomes all the easier for the real woman to slip out of reach. MacKay at least reminds us that she existed, and that's no small feat.

Reviewed on: 06 Sep 2018
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Inspired by the life and works of Nelly Arcan, a sex worker turned international literary star, lost between irreconcilable identities, whose life ended tragically.

Director: Anne Émond

Writer: Anne Émond

Starring: Mylène Mackay, Marie-Claude Guérin, Simon Alain

Year: 2016

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Canada


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