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Anne Émond’s biopic of Nelly Arcan is a mix of make-believe and memoir

Anne Emond attends Les Etres Chers red carpet on August 12, 2015 in Locarno, Switzerland.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

With her electric new feature Nelly premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, French-Canadian director Anne Émond (Nuit #1, Les êtres chers) has risen to the challenge of making a movie about one of Quebec's most loved and most hated public figures: bad-girl writer Nelly Arcan.

Née Isabelle Fortier in Quebec's Eastern Townships, Arcan's writing was sensational, controversial and, by all accounts, brilliant – and though she isn't well-known in much of English Canada, she was a literary starlet in Quebec and France. Her first two novels, Putain (2001) and Folle (2004) (translated as Whore and Hysteric, respectively) put her on the map as an inventive and antagonizing young author, but in 2009 Arcan's rise abruptly ended when she took her own life at the age of 36.

In Nelly, Émond – a great talent in her own right at 34 – riffs on Arcan's own style of fictionalized autobiography. A mix of make-believe and memoir, the film introduces us to the different sides of Arcan – all of which are stunningly played with fine degrees of nuance by Québécoise actor Mylène Mackay. Marrying form with these split-character studies, the film's sequencing does not follow a straight path. Rather, through Émond's framing we meet four of Arcan's alter egos: the neurotic writer, the toxic lover, the call girl and the star. Arcan's real-life experience working as a sex worker and her prickly but magnetic public persona have made her a cultural icon of both ill repute and tireless conversation in French Canada, but here Émond insists she was more than a topic of controversy, but a multidimensional artist and woman.

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Speaking over the phone before TIFF, Émond elaborates on her choice to make a formally inventive biopic of the late author's life. "I've always been fascinated by Nelly Arcan – and when she died in 2009 I cried as if it had been my sister. I didn't know why, because I'd never met her, but I felt close to her and understood a bit of her character," she says. "I knew I wanted to make a movie about her, but I didn't know if it would be an adaptation of one of her books, a biopic or something strange – like I think I did with this film – that combines parts of her life and parts of her books."

The result is that Nelly plays with the lies and half-truths of the author's life at the same time that it depicts her on the precipice of her own vulnerability.

Émond's fascination with Arcan took root many years ago as the filmmaker struggled to reconcile Arcan's persona with her poignant and brutally honest writing. "Her public persona interested me a lot because I saw this beautiful but all-fake woman: fake blond hair, fake boobs, fake lips, everything was fake!" she says. "She had this strange vibe in interviews and when she appeared on television. She seemed superficial, but so sensitive and fragile at the same time."

After carefully researching Arcan's life, and writing the script over a two-year period, Émond found she had no interest in flattening her complex subject into a tidier story. "I spoke with some of her friends, boyfriends, editors, and it was like they were talking about 1,000 different people and I was like, 'Okay, she had a complicated life and she lied a lot!'"

You might think of Arcan as the Québécoise Cat Marnell – the New York-based author who writes publicly and unapologetically about her drug use, self-loathing and confused relationship to media, but who, unlike Arcan, is still living and writing (to give you a sense of her style, Marnell's forthcoming memoir is titled How to Murder Your Life).

What these authors have in common, apart from their tendency toward peroxide, is a confessional mode of writing that lays bare a boring cultural moralism that suffocates many a creative woman. While Hunter Thompson could drink enough rum to kill a small horse and still be called a serious author, when Marnell writes about her love of amphetamines she's deemed a junkie and a hot mess.

Likewise, in Nelly we watch as Arcan butts up against the double standard of what constitutes creative genius for women. Mackay, playing the starlet iteration of Arcan, wears a gold-sequined dress and flits around a posh party imbibing Champagne as if it were water and looking to dance. When a friend tells her the tall, long-haired man across the room is being billed by the critics as an artistic genius, she tugs him (reluctant, stand-offish) onto the dance floor. What follows is an aching scene of female performance that mimics the double bind that an artist such as Arcan found herself in – that is, wanting to be exuberant and carefree while also being taken as seriously for her craft as any man would certainly be.

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When asked about this scene and its critique of the nonchalant male genius versus the desperate, slightly silly female artist, Émond replies: "Well, I assume it's a feminist film and I take pride in that. Nelly had a lot of issues with society – she had a frustrating relationship to men, a difficult relationship to the media and it kills her in a way, but in my film I did not want to make her a victim." Émond pauses here before adding, "She is strong enough to be her own killer."

Émond doesn't shy away from the difficult theme of suicide (as audiences can also witness in her previous film, Les êtres chers), in part because she and her family have confronted it intimately. "I felt I had to write," Émond says, "and because of my experience I felt I could." Suicide and death also invariably come with the territory of adapting Arcan's life and writing for the screen. "All of her life, she had been around death: She wrote about death, she obsessed over it, so I almost had no choice" the director says. "I was also inspired by the lives of other women like Virginia Woolf, Amy Winehouse, Sylvia Plath – all these artistic women who were all very different but all lived tormented lives and had a hard relationship to people looking at them. They felt the pressure of needing to be the most beautiful, or the smartest, and always needing to fight to get their place."

Émond adds that "in the case of Nelly, the art of writing helped her to survive – it was her reason to live – but in another way, it's also what kills her. She's so afraid of the eyes of everyone around her."

But does Émond, as a successful young female artist herself, feel a similar pressure to be a wunderkind – the stuff that top-30-under-30 lists are made of? "It's funny because when I started to work on the film three or four years ago, I asked my boyfriend to read the script and he said, 'Oh, okay, it's Nelly, but it's also you,'" she says. "I am not as excessive as Arcan was, but the part of her story that I understand and can relate to is as an artist that is terrified of the critics, and terrified of getting older, and of not being desired as an artist and as a woman any more."

It seems that Émond has nothing to worry about. Quebec has always been known for nurturing its own artistic talents – and valuing the role of director especially – in a way that other provinces have failed to do as consistently. As such, Émond is a vital part of a dazzling generation of filmmakers coming out of Quebec and hitting TIFF like a French-Canadian wave of mad, unbridled talent. Alongside the distinct voices of Xavier Dolan, Chloé Robichaud, Vincent Biron, Kim Nguyen, Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie, Émond's Nelly will stand out at this year's festival for its formal risks and Mackay's deft performance as the many faces of Arcan.

When asked what is next for her and if she would ever consider doing a feature film in English as her contemporary Dolan has done with his upcoming movie, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, starring heavyweight Hollywood actors Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman, the answer is yes. "I would like to," Émond says, "I don't think I could write in English – it's already hard enough to write a script in French! – but I would definitely be interested in directing a film in English. I would have to work harder though, since it's harder for me to express myself, but I would be open to that." Dreaming for a moment of who, in an ideal world, would make up her cast, Émond says, "There's lots of actors I would die to work with. Maybe it is clichéd, but working with Joaquin Phoenix or Cate Blanchett would be great."

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In the meantime, Émond will be taking some deserved time away from the film set and the frenetic pace of a production schedule. "I've been working for the last three years and now I feel lucky to be able to take some time off and write," she says.

What's next on the creative horizon for Émond? "I'm working on a movie that is way, way less dark than this film!"

Nelly plays TIFF Sept. 9, 6 p.m., Hot Docs and Sept. 11, 7 p.m., Lightbox (tiff.net/tiff).

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