“People lack imagination.” This is how controversial Quebecois celebrity author Nelly Arcan (Mylène Mackay) accounts for the public’s prurient desire to know just how much of her bestselling novel, “Putain” (“Whore”), is informed by her experiences as a call girl in Anne Émond’s sympathetic-to-a-fault deconstructed biopic “Nelly.” But imagination is the one thing that Arcan herself does not lack. Love, understanding, self-control, calm, and ultimately, tragically, the will to keep on living — all these things are in short supply. But of imagination, if anything, Nelly had a surfeit.
So much so that, writer-director Émond posits, she imagined herself into a state of fragmented identity, inventing several different personas, each to protect or conceal another in a kind of psychological shell game that eventually became too exhausting and confusing to maintain. At the age of just 36, in 2009, Arcan hanged herself. This tragic end inevitably exerts a retrospective lunar pull on the film, which highlights the gloomier, doomier aspects of her life and work (Émond’s screenplay is an amalgam of biographical details and incidents culled from her books). At one point she’s seen swan-diving off a balcony to get away from a violent client, at another she pops some pills following a heartbreak and wakes up in the hospital. Her dialogue is peppered with statements like “I lower my body into death” and “writing brings me closer to death” and “I have this feeling that everything is killing me” — “Nelly” can feel like a chronicle of one long act of suicidal ideation.
The film’s chief innovation (because formally it is otherwise competent rather than inspired, with DP Josée Deshaies’ digital images lit rather flatly at times) is to literalize those Russian nesting doll personalities. Lead actress Mackay embodies multiple versions, from Arcan’s call-girl persona “Cynthia,” to the mousy, reclusive woman who does the actual work of writing, to the brittle, glamorous celebrity (imagined as a Hitchcockian icy blonde), to the rock-chick drug user in a volatile relationship with boyfriend François (Mickaël Gouin) to the honey-blonde socialite poured like a highball into a Marilyn Monroe dress.
The various facets of Nelly’s personality are differentiated by appearance and wardrobe, giving the film, despite Mackay’s versatile performance, the feel of a game of dress-up at times. And it can muddle chronology too, as the radical changes, in hair color especially, imply that there can’t have been much overlap between them all. But separate identities, along with the depiction of Isabelle (Nelly’s real name) as a child (Milya Corbeil-Gauvreau), are nonetheless united by an underlying sense of inadequacy, and a palpable desire to be desired, noticed, or loved, however that can be quantified, in applause, sex, money, book sales.
It is laudable that Émond does not try to claim any one of the personas as the primary one, instead fanning out the different versions like a tarot deck and exhorting us to pick a card, any card. But it’s not the most dynamic of approaches as the film can’t build up much momentum when it’s forever cycling between diverse but fixed states, and somewhere in the gaps between them all, we lose the sense that Arcan ever truly occupied space in the world: The solid reality of Nelly eludes us. Was she only one of them, hiding behind all the others? Or was she all of them, the way all women — all people — can be more than one thing at a time?
The lines between Cynthia, Nelly, Isabelle, et al inevitably start to blur. A john nearly recognizes Cynthia as Nelly; later she confesses her fear that she has started doing extreme things in her call-girl persona solely to generate material for her writer self. And in a way that probably reflects her real-life trajectory, it feels like we’re right on the brink of a revelation when the end abruptly comes instead. Émond obviously has deep feeling for Arcan, and “Nelly” is a sincere and respectful attempt to do at least partial, fragmentary justice to a troubled woman able to self-create any persona except a happy one, but it can’t put her back together again.