“What do you see when you look in the mirror? I see the scar above my lip from chicken pox, my mother’s smile and I hear my high school friend screaming out my nickname, ‘cheekbones.’ When I look in the mirror I see my crooked teeth and my hairy arms. I strain to see my reflection as I really look and almost end up being needlessly harsh. But, lately, I try to be gentle. I try to see myself clearly.”
There is a scene in Anne Émond’s film, Nelly, about sex worker-turned-author Nelly Arcan, in which Arcan stands in front of a mirror naked and takes stock of her reflection. She lists her body parts like pieces of meat, describing their sexual power and beauty. It is not a morbid scene, but it is shot with a detached coolness. It is a scene that, literally, has Nelly’s body centre frame but robs it of its titillation. Remove the words and it is a description without specificity; the image she paints is merely an ideal, beauty without identity. Here we have just a body, imbued with so much meaning beyond Arcan’s control. Even Arcan fails to see herself beyond someone else’s gaze.
Anne Émond has only been directing feature-length films for a few years, but she has quickly become one of the most compelling voices coming from Quebec. In particular, her two films Nuit #1 (2011) and Nelly (2016) have made a mark in festivals well beyond la belle province. They’re movies that deal frankly with sex and women’s bodies. They exist in a wider conversation about the representation of the human figure in art history and on screen. They are movies that seek to reconcile a history of nude female bodies, defined by vacuity, by imbuing them with complicated identities.
Émond’s work exists in larger conversation with Quebec’s film history. In 1969, Valérie, a softcore porn film, skyrocketed in the industry. Valérie was about a convent runaway who makes her way to Montreal, the big city, and finds herself. The movie was a smash success and ushered in a short golden age of Quebeckers climaxing in maple syrup. Filmmakers like Gilles Carle, Denis Héroux and Claude Fournier defined a language of auteurism and the male gaze that would become the backbone of the industry.
Even the most progressive of these films, however, were in service of the male gaze. Women were defined by their desirability and were sexualized without context. Individuality gave way to stock personality tropes: the rebel, the hippie and the housewife. These characters were uncomplicated, even when they rebelled. They were also an extension of a greater history of representing women in art: that of the ethereal nude.
The figure has always been a dominant part of art history. As a child, I was enraptured by the images of artists like Modigliani, Manet and Renoir and their depictions of beautiful women in repose. These figures had no identity. In the nude, the woman is defined by her absence and desired for it because if you spend too much time imagining the details of the woman’s life beyond her desirability, you have to think of her as a human being.
Working in this greater conversation of the representation of women’s bodies in art, Émond’s films feel radical. She too focuses on the absence in her characters’ beautiful nude bodies, but she turns it on the audience. Her movies are uncomfortable rather than exciting, as we confront the nude bodies of her characters by their sense of emptiness and as the specificity in their anguish reflects the individuality of her women. That absence, rather than serve the male gaze, annihilates it.
Her movies are uncomfortable rather than exciting, as we confront the nude bodies of her characters by their sense of emptiness and as the specificity in their anguish reflects the individuality of her women.
In Nuit #1, a young woman goes to a small corner of Montreal with a man she meets at a club. They make love, they talk and they argue until morning. Sex serves as the instigator of a false intimacy and a means of spiritual escape for Clara, who is a kindergarten teacher when she isn’t clubbing or fucking. With two combating identities, Clara’s struggle is rooted in her difficulty in reconciling her different impulses. Her body serves as the battleground where pleasure and pain fight it out for survival—Clara’s longing and suffering are articulated in the way she moves and the way light bounces off her body.
Émond uses the language of desire but subverts it. The words, images, gaze and framing that we choose mean everything in a discussion of bodies. In French, the word “figure” is “silhouette,” a word that feels cast in shadows or darkness. A silhouette is defined by angles and shapes rather than texture and detail. Clara’s body, so often wrapped in low light, does not reflect her interior world and how she feels about herself, or that she apparently feels nothing at all. It becomes a haunting portrayal of a woman cast adrift. As Clara searches for physical intimacy as a route towards spiritual peace, she only feels more and more empty.
This is further explored in Nelly, a memoir of the life of Quebec author Nelly Arcan. The film’s structure belies non-identity in representing Nelly and her body. Structured in parallel narratives that frame different aspects of Nelly’s life as a writer, girlfriend, sex worker and child, a complicated kind of swath identity takes focus. Even with the multiplicity of her identities, Arcan never comes into clear focus—her truth remains a secret, an absence that once again belies the perceived comfort of her stereotypical beauty. The big question of who Nelly Arcan is remains open, a frustrating subversion of expectations and uncomplicated male desire.
Émond’s script weaves Arcan’s writing into dialogue and voice-over. That voice is preoccupied with the distance Arcan feels from herself. In a flashback, she is having her tarot cards read and the fortune teller is perturbed, asking her for another card. “Something in me was always lacking,” she says before the scene cuts. Later, with a lover, she says: “since you didn’t look at me, I place myself in your gaze.” Talking to her therapist about how she feels like a spectre, witnessing her life as if it were someone else’s, she says:
“I’m there watching but it’s not really me. I watch her. I see her talking, drinking, dancing, fucking, laughing and crying. I see this blonde woman, lying on the couch with her therapist, but I’m not that woman. Though I play that woman well. I need to be seen but it’s not myself that I reveal. So I disappear a bit. I appear to disappear.”
Sex is a preoccupying force in Arcan’s life, but the only scenes where she is eroticized are when Arcan feels sexy. In one scene, lit gold and with Arcan wearing wearing a gold dress, she dances and seduces a man at a party. The whole thing is shot like a scene out of a classic musical, and she seems lighter than air. Her body and her existence are defined by her desirability because that is what she wants to project to the world.
Unlike most filmmakers, Émond does not sexualize Arcan beyond sequences like this. When Arcan is doing mundane tasks, and that includes her sex work, she is shown with a greater objectivity that presents her as a human being rather than as a sex object. Her body becomes functional and it is not defined or evaluated by its desirability. Émond’s gaze, which refuses to eroticize Arcan’s body, restores her dignity and her ownership over her choices.
If anything, Arcan is more inscrutable by the end of the film than she was at the beginning. This is frustrating but an integral part of Émond’s greater conversation on bodies and ownership. Arcan’s ever-changing relationship to her beauty and desirability are often at the expense of her identity. Throughout her own writing and Émond’s film, Arcan cannot see herself clearly. Her body and mind are unconnected, and as the world is only ever able to see her for her physicality, it is as if that interior world does not exist at all.
The absence that becomes the source of the desirability of female forms in so much of art history becomes the central focus of discomfort in the work of Émond. Her women are unknowable; their feeling of emptiness and absence renders their bodies uncomfortable rather than arousing. Émond’s representation of the female figure becomes one of rebellion, in which the male gaze is turned on its head, as that lack of identity that makes women’s bodies objects of desire suddenly become landscapes of pain and despair.
Her women are unknowable; their feeling of emptiness and absence renders their bodies uncomfortable rather than arousing.
Anne Émond calls into question a history of art that strips women of identities and the effects that legacy has on reconciling the body and mind for most women. With three features under her belt and another in production, Émond’s voice in the depiction of women remains an integral force in demonstrating the importance of diversity behind the camera.