It would be a mistake to describe Clean as another entry in the already crowded field of movies about drug addicts. Yes, the film’s plot follows a familiar arc with serious bottoming out en route to recovery, and yes, the leading role — played by Maggie Cheung — is, typically, the kind of juicy part that allows an actress to stretch her chops to emotional and physical extremes. Clean does seem a rather conventional film for adventurous French director Olivier Assayas (Demonlover, Irma Vep), but its careful handling of a very specific phenomenon — the rock-star widow — distinguishes it from the usual portrait of the needle and the damage done.
Cheung’s frizzy-haired character, Emily Wang, is obviously meant as a Yoko Ono/Courtney Love refraction; one imagines she’d get along well with Blake in Last Days‘s alternate universe. Much maligned by the manager and fans of her fading-star boyfriend, Lee, for ruining his career, Emily begins Clean on the defensive. After the couple have a fight, Emily shoots heroin and falls asleep in her car; on returning, she finds Lee dead of an overdose. She spends six months in prison and then begins rediscovering life in fits and starts, mostly in Paris. Assayas tracks the difficulty such a character faces in accepting an everyday life with icy cinematography and listless camera work. Emily goes through it for the sake of her estranged son, who’s been raised by Lee’s hardened mother (Martha Henry) and forgiving father (sweet grizzly bear Nick Nolte). Redemption does come — mostly in the form of a Golden Gate landscape shot, actually — but it’s slow going.
Of course, there’s another fold to all this, namely that Assayas and Cheung collaborated on Irma Vep, married, separated, and only then worked together on Clean. Many commented on the way Irma Vep, which starred Cheung as herself in a fictionalized account of an aborted film, worked to demystify the actress. Clean seems to move in the opposite direction, with Assayas casting Cheung in a part tailored to consume her. Regardless of motive, it’s clear that Cheung’s acting and Assayas’s direction are formidable, matched forces, making for an on-screen tension not unlike the best of what von Sternberg and Dietrich could produce. (Max Goldberg)
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