Maggie Cheung’s Enigmatic Performance Elevates Shoe-Gazing Drug Rehab Flick
Despite lapses into gratuitous digressions into soapy interdyke bickering, Clean is ultimately a sweet rarity that aptly earns your willingness to forgive its flaws. At heart an earnest addict redemption tale from Olivier Assayas, previously best known for his sort of meta, whip-smart Irma Vep, Clean avoids doper movies’ usual pitfalls—relapses, agonizing withdrawal scenes replete with award-bait teeth gnashing, and inevitable wrap-ups in smoke-filled NA meetings.
Instead, it opts for the hard stuff—negotiating failed dreams with what follows, the daily grind of being “ordinary,” and the flux of post-nuclear family life. And, boy, that sounds dull. But Clean isn’t, and how. The central reason why boils down to two words: Maggie Cheung, she of the in-profile regal nose, alternately doelike and terrifying gaze, and small, heart-shaped pout of a mouth that’s also up to a dismissive sneer. A raised eyebrow could change everything. You can’t not look at her.
Playing Emily—the prickly ex-video jock doper wife of doomed has-been ’80s rocker Lee Hauser (James Johnston)—Cheung takes a role that lesser life forms would have played for cheap Courtney Love resonance or, worse, an opiated Yoko Ono-ish exoticism. Both crazy-skilled and intuitive as heck, Cheung instead creates a sort of one-woman suspense thriller—you don’t worry so much that Emily will relapse as go crazy waiting for her rapidly thinning veneer of self-control to shatter.
When we first meet Cheung’s Emily, she’s holed up with Lee in a miserable industrial Canadian town. She mercilessly browbeats Lee’s manager for a better record deal, harangues her husband about his current music, and, in general, is a royal bitch on wheels. But Cheung manages to let us know Emily is much more than that even if Emily doesn’t quite yet know it herself.
Lee overdoses while Emily shoots up alone in her car. She’s arrested for possession, spends six months in the joint, and comes out clean, supported by methadone and, unknown to her, Lee’s father, Albrecht (Nick Nolte), who has been taking care of both her financial affairs and Jay (James Dennis), the child she didn’t have time to care for while being doped and semifamous.
After moving to a remarkably grim-looking part of Paris, Emily takes a job in a Chinese restaurant, as much to convince herself that she is capable of mothering Jay as to make money. Albrecht, now in London overseeing his son’s posthumous “best of” CD, is the only person left who doesn’t blame Emily for Lee’s death. In shaded, tentative increments, a relationship forms between Emily and Albrecht. What follows is a series of confrontations between Emily and her past, Albrecht’s interventions, and intimations of her possible futures—which may include a return to the rock ’n’ roll life via a Nico-ish demo made while in the clink.
Which again sounds deadly dull, but—again—it isn’t. Assayas’ script is too deft, his pacing too brisk, his characters’ dialogue—in French and English—too on-the-money smart.
And now the nitpicking. Although Assayas’ use of circa-’70s Brian Eno ambient-pop for major soundtrack element creates an apt mood swing between apprehension and numbed calm, other musical minutiae, while arguably adding vérité to the proceedings, also suggest the director wants us to vet his dubious cutting edge-ness. An entire scene is pointlessly framed by a performance by the electroclashy Metric; trip-hopper Tricky not only cameos but also gets a tiny subplot of his own; and David Roback, ex of dream-popper Mazzy Star, puts in an appearance. It’s all just a bit too precious.
Meanwhile, Emily’s piss take-heavy meetings with her ex-lover/powerbroker Irene (Jeanne Balibar) and her minxy current lover merely toy with topics of power and gender preference, before summarily dropping them.
But we come to praise Clean, not bitch about its minor irritants. Nolte, with his overdocumented dope-fiend past, at first feels like a craven sort of stunt casting. The impression lasts about one minute, after which you realize this may be a life performance, as heavy with worn acceptance as his turn in Affliction was lousy with rage.
But again, there’s always Cheung. Whenever Clean strays, she pulls it together by the sheer focus of her invented Emily-ness. Both star and director save their most memorable slight of hand in the movie’s open-ended finale, resulting in the wonderful, lingering sense that Emily is still fucking up and hopefully soldiering on even after the credits roll.