Although she is a remarkable actress, Maggie Cheung has rarely had a film role that made full use of her talents. Written expressly for her by her ex-husband Olivier Assayas, Clean gives Cheung an opportunity to show exactly what she can accomplish. Set on a modest scale, but told with Assayas' characteristic immediacy and complexity, the film is a moving story of growth and reconciliation as well as an excellent showcase for a genuinely talented star.
Opening scenes set in Canada detail the dissolute and dissolving marriage of Lee (James Johnston), a passive-aggressive rock musician, and Emily (Cheung), his overbearing wife and manager. Both are heroin addicts, although drugs are clearly a symptom of deeper-rooted problems. Within a few minutes of screen time, Lee has died of an overdose, Emily is sentenced to prison, and her father-in-law Albrecht (Nick Nolte) informs her that he's taken custody of her young son Jay (James Dennis).
Emily moves to Paris, where she leans on old friends for help. Jean-Pierre (Rémi Martin), a publicist, gets her fake prescriptions for methadone. An uncle gives her a job as a waitress in his restaurant, while Elena (Béatrice Dalle), a rock manager, finds her a flat in the suburbs. But these are temporary measures that don't address the real reasons why Emily has reached this point.
The bulk of the film examines her struggle for sobriety, which is also a struggle for maturity and self-respect. Because Assayas doesn't judge his characters, some have mistaken his style here as dispassionate or even diffident. But Emily and her father-in-law Albrecht have enormous reservoirs of emotion which they are trying to keep in check. Surrounded by reversals and disappointments, it's no wonder they have retreated into themselves.
Clean is filled with quick, precise character sketches, from a fed-up agent (played by Don McKellar) to Emily's coworkers in the Chinese restaurant. Assayas is equally comfortable depicting the squalor of a dingy rock club and the icy cubicles of television executives. As in his other films, he includes several challenging crowd scenes that are impressively shot. He also excels at depicting the mundane, day-to-day details that persist despite personal calamities. But Assayas consistently underplays his style in order to give his actors the room they need.
Nolte gives a quiet, dignified performance as a grandfather whose world is shrinking around him, but the film was built for Cheung, who is outstanding in a difficult part. She is so open and candid that her character makes sense despite her flaws. Cheung is at a point in her career where she no longer has to compromise about her art, and her honesty is one of the qualities that makes Clean such a morally satisfying film. She even sings a few tunes in a serviceable voice. Clean won Cheung Best Actress at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, a reward that reflects her long career as well as Assayas' generous film.
Cast and credits
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, Martha Henry, James Johnston, James Dennis, Rémi Martin, Laetitia Spigarelli, Tricky, David Roback, Emily Haines, Man Kit Cheung.
Credits: Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Produced by Edouard Weil, Xavier Marchand, Niv Fichman. Executive producers: Aline Perry, Rupert Preston. Director of photography: Eric Gautier. Edited by Luc Barnier. Set designers: François-Renaud Labarthe, Bill Fleming. Costume designer: Anaïs Romand. A Rectangle Productions presentation, in co-production with Haystack Productions and Rhombus Media, of an Arte France Cinéma co-production, in association with Canal +, the Centre National de la Cinématographie, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, and Telefilm Canada, in association with The Film Consortium, UK Film Council, The Works, Matrix Film Finance LLP, with associate producers Forensic Films, Elizabeth II. In French, Cantonese, and English, with English subtitles.