Film Review: NELLY (Canada 2016)

nelly.jpgDirected by Anne Émond

Starring: Mylène MacKay, Marie-Claude Guérin, Catherine Brunet

Review by Gilbert Seah

Quebecois writer/director Anne Émond impressed cineastes with her first two features NUIT #1 and LES ETRES CHERS for their complexity and honesty. There is more of the same in her latest feature called NELLY which is based on the works and life of controversial writer Nelly Arcan (born Isabelle Fortier).

The film is bookmarked with Nelly’s performance on stage of the catchy well-known song “Those Were the Days” in French. At the start of the movie during the rendering of the song, the camera lowers to the front row of the audience where Nelly is signalled to lower her voice. It is a scene that impresses, that shows how details like these can capture the attention of a director’s audience.

Fortier published Putain (Whore) in 2001, causing a sensation in literary circles with a tale of prostitution based on her own experience in the trade. But with the success of that debut novel came crushing anxieties, all of which found their way into her work.

Émond portrays the onscreen NELLY as a composite of Arcan’s many personas and her fictional characters, bringing her to life in an astounding, kaleidoscopic performance by Mylène Mackay – and an excellent almost faultless performance at that. Émond blurs the line between the real and the fictitious character so that he audience is unaware what is happening is real or imagined. In this way, as the film moves from one striking passage of the author’s oeuvre to the next, from elating highs to desperate lows, the audience is immersed in her lush and punishing world. The character Nelly would do things in real life to test out for her characters in the book to do. There is a segment involving rough sex that is as sexy as it is deadly.

NELLY is not a biopic in the normal sense. NELLY is not portrayed from child to her death in her early thirties. In fact the cause of her death (an early one at 34) is not even mentioned in the film, illustrating the fact that, that fact is not the important point in the film. The film traces just the window of her life within a year where everything that takes place establishes the writer for what she is. Her relationship with her lover is also displayed in all its complexity. The one scene in which an argument ensues for the fact that he refuses to share a line of coke with her explains the volatility of their relationship, as also hinted in the disturbing scene in the swimming pool change-room. Here, Nelly is shown mentally unstable, writhing on the wet floor of the change room screaming at her lover. Nelly does spend some time in a sanatorium (which she describes as a rest house) which she deeply resents.

NELLY has been deservedly chosen as one of Canada’s Top 10 films and it sits as one of the better ones. It is a small budget production, efficiently made, effective and like her other works, complexed but honest.





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