Anne Emond’s drama is based on the life and literary works of Nelly Arcan, a French-Canadian sex worker who became a best-selling novelist.

You never really get a firm handle on the real-life titular character of Anne Emond’s new film, and that’s largely the point. Recounting the story of Nelly Arcan, a French-Canadian sex worker who became a best-selling author and committed suicide at age 36, Nelly delivers a deliberately fragmentary, time-shifting portrait that is as provocative as it is sometimes frustrating. What anchors the proceedings is the lead performance of Mylene Mackay, whose star will definitely be on the rise after this sexy, galvanizing turn.

Mackay inhabits the character in a variety of personas. In alternating scenes she’s a canny prostitute, manipulating her clients with confident sexuality; an ambitious writer who achieves literary success with her acclaimed 2004 novel Putain (Whore), partially based on her own experiences; and an emotionally troubled, drug-abusing young woman, involved in a conflict-ridden relationship with her boyfriend (Mickael Gouin).

The film muddies the narrative waters by jumping back to Arcan as a child (played by Mylia Corbell-Gavreau) and including scenes from her novels. So those unfamiliar with her work will have a hard time differentiating between reality (or at least its fictionalized version) and fantasy. Some of these sequences prove the most arresting, such as when she jumps out of a window to her death after a violent encounter with a john.

Conveying these multiple personalities and demeanors would be a challenge for any actress, but Mackay vividly and consistently delivers. That her hairstyles and costumes change dramatically depending on the moment helps, of course, but the actress proves an emotional chameleon as well. The range of feelings she projects, from timid coquettishness to intellectual insecurity to brazen seductress, is vast, but they somehow never feel inconsistent, even as the episodic narrative proves confusing and disjointed.

Taken as a cinematic kaleidoscope, however, Nelly more than succeeds. One of the most charming scenes shows Arcan and several of her fellow prostitutes poring over online reviews of their work. Arcan’s shy look of delight as she hears a rhapsodic account of her performance from a client is priceless. At other times her overt sexuality comes to the fore, such as when she delivers an erotic monologue to her increasingly uncomfortable male therapist and then tries to seduce him, or when, clad in a skintight, shimmering dress on a dance floor, she throws herself to a male stranger who clearly can’t believe his luck.

Bio-pics of writers often turn out to be plodding affairs, filled with scenes of its subjects staring dejectedly at their typewriters and too blatantly depicting parallels between their lives and their work. Nelly avoids those narrative pitfalls with its ambitious approach, even if it falls into other stylistic traps in the process. But there’s no denying its hypnotic effect, fueled to a significant degree by the gorgeous cinematography of Josee Deshaies. Erotically charged in a way that fully conveys its subject’s sexual and literary allure, the film seizes you and doesn’t let go.

Production: Seville Entertainment, Go Films
Distributor: Cinema Libre Studios
Cast: Mylene Mackay, Marie-Claude-Guerin, Simon Alain, Catherine Brunet, Marc Beland
Director/screenwriter: Anne Emond
Producer: Nicole Robert
Director of photography: Josee Deshaies
Production designer: David Pelletier
Editor: Mathieu Bochard-Malo
Costume designer: Patricia McNeil
Casting: Nathalie Boutrie, Constance Demontoyo

100 min.