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 Universite' du Que'bec.
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."