Is Maggie Cheung too clean for Clean? This is the question Filmbrain found himself asking after seeing Olivier Assayas' latest, which at times seems like a love letter from the director to his former wife. Clean is easily the most straightforward and conventional film from the man whose last film was the fascinating, yet frustrating Demonlover.
Clean tells the story of Emily Wang (Cheung), junkie wife of on-the-skids rockstar (and fellow junkie) Lee Hauser (James Johnston). Emily rivals Yoko Ono for most hated rockstar spouse, with magazines like Q and Mojo blaming her for Lee's decline. After an argument in a seedy motel, Lee overdoses, and Emily is sent off to jail for possession. Naturally, everybody turns against her, and she finds herself without friends, money, or custody of her young son Jay (James Dennis). At the end of her prison sentence, she decides to start over in Paris, hoping to clean her life up in order to be reunited with Jay, who is being raised by her Canadian in-laws (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry).
The first third of the film, set in an ugly industrial Canadian town is quite strong, and it's unfortunate that the remainder sinks into a sort of complacency. All of the tension disappears, and Emily's struggle is for the most part nonexistent. While it's nice that Assayas avoids almost all of the junkie-going-straight clichés, things seem to come together a bit too conveniently. Though the desire to be reunited with her son is a strong motivation, we never get the sense that she's having that hard of a time with it. As Jay's grandfather, Nolte is the kind, loving old man who is also full of forgiveness, and his desire to help Emily is touching, but doesn't make for the most compelling cinema.
Part of Maggie's plan towards recovery is to pursue a musical career. While in prison she (somehow) recorded demos with a fellow inmate, and lo and behold she now has the chance to record with David Roback of Mazzy Star. This thread of the story really doesn't work in Filmbrain's opinion, and comes off as little more than Assayas showing us yet another of Maggie's talents. (Though is Filmbrain alone in thinking that both her voice and the songs were pretty awful?)
As a vehicle for Maggie, Clean is a tremendous success, and nobody can argue against her skill as an actress -- her performance throughout is masterful, and the scenes with her son are heart wrenching despite (or perhaps due to) Assayas' unsentimental approach. It's a side of Maggie we've not seen before, and she clearly gave her all for the part. The problem, as mentioned above, is that with her gorgeous looks and perfect skin it's hard to buy into the fact that she's meant to be a junkie just released from prison going through withdrawal. While that's not a reason to write off the film, it is a bit of a distraction. Is Olivier trying to woo her back? Did he write this for her, or is it just coincidence? Any actress would be flattered to have such a part created for her -- Emily appears in almost every scene, and Eric Gautier's camera has her looking positively radiant from start to finish (even when her hair is mussed).
The screenplay, written by Assayas and newcomers Malachy Martin and Sarah Perry has its flaws, particularly in some of the supporting characters. While the thought of Jeanne Balibar and Maggie Cheung as former lovers is the stuff dreams are made of, its inclusion in the story serves little purpose (as does the Balibar character entirely). Assayas once again uses music to great effect, and though it's cool to hear some classic Brian Eno tracks, the instrumental An Ending (Ascent) is dangerously close to its overuse point (Traffic, 28 Days Later).
Clean is one of those films you wish was better than it is. The fact that it starts out so well makes the disappointment that much greater. It's not a bad film, and definitely worth seeing (should it ever find distribution in the States), but it's no Irma Vep.