Halfway through Anne Émond’s film Nelly, there’s a scene with a group of sex workers hanging around a hotel room suite. Wine glasses in hand, they huddle around the white glow of a laptop, and log onto some unnamed “escort review” website. They then begin to read each other’s reviews out loud.
By Rick Paulas
The site isn’t named or shown; it could be one of many, as sex work has been reviewed and critiqued on the internet since the internet was a place where words could go. These reviews are written by “johns,” ostensibly to warn other people if the worker isn’t on the level, but in reality just a bunch of horny dudes writing erotica for strangers online. In the scene, the workers rightfully mock the reviewers, but there is still a clear sense of being affected by the reviews. After all, someone is publicly judging every single part of their body.
While it’s only a glimpse, it’s a fascinating insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes in the profession, and the various power machinations that develop when sex is exchanged for money. An unprotected-by-law industry, sex workers are vulnerable in ways that so many other professions aren’t — dangerous clients can act with impunity when workers can’t safely contact law enforcement — but there’s also the society veil of silence over the work itself. “It’s illegal, and it’s immoral, so we shouldn’t be talking about it,” is the sentiment.
“While it’s only a glimpse, it’s a fascinating insight into what goes on behind-the-scenes in the profession, and the various power machinations that develop when sex is exchanged for money.” Rick Paulas
Yet these are the kinds of glimpses that makes Nelly, and the book it was inspired by, such important documents. Without them, the work continues to occur — as it always has, as it always will — under the cover of darkness.
The movie tells the story of Nelly Arcan, born Isabelle Fortier, a sex worker based in Quebec who rose to international fame after the publication of her 2001 autobiographical novel Putain (Whore), a fictionalized story narrated by a sex worker named Cynthia. She would go on to write four more books, each one a semi-autobiographical examination of her life — really: what book isn’t? Each book tried to pry open how society treats women. In 2009, after years of depression, she died via suicide.
While Arcan wasn’t as popular a figure in the U.S. as elsewhere — which certainly says something about the insidious reach of Protestantism that still haunts this country — viewers don’t need to know her backstory to be intrigued by it.
Unlike standard biopics, this one’s told in a sort of foggy, nonlinear way, with Émond seemingly sampling from a few different characters that make up the entirety of who “Nelly” was. In all, there are five versions on display: An adolescent Fortier being introduced to sexual connections for the first time; a drug-addicted frail woman in a codependent relationship; a confident and fully refined sex worker; a fretful author trying to manage the pressures of publications; a glowing media superstar. The last four are all played by Mylène Mackay, in a series of dynamic performances that see her shifting moods scene-by-scene. I’m unfamiliar with Mackay’s previous work, and it took me about half of the movie to realize she was playing four characters, both a testament to her ability and a criticism of my own attention span.
Despite all being part of the same individual, each is presented dramatically different. One may even be fictionalized. It’s unclear. Reality and performance and truth all seem to blur in this portrait, like one of those 3D posters where, if you cross your eyes just the right way, you’ll see a sharpened vision of a boat or some mountain jutting out toward you. But every moment before and after is just a hazy blur.
If the movie comes off as disjointed, that’s probably part of the point. Life is messy, and trying to tell anyone’s story in such a compressed lens as a film is an act of blinding hubris and logistical chaos. The narrative should be from the moment the person’s born until they die, but as soon as you remove a single moment, you’ve introduced an editorial lens that has to justify itself. Émond pulls off the feat by using the chaos to her advantage. Moments occur, personalities change, other personalities emerge. If it’s unclear which is the “true” version, that’s because there isn’t one.
Toward the end, Arcan admits that she “invented Nelly to protect Isabelle, but I think the opposite happened. I did things to write about them.” In today’s age of social media, where everyone with a smartphone and ego live in a way where they’re constantly thinking if an experience is worth publishing to the world, there are fewer sentiments more relatable.
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