29 April 2006 | Chris Knipp
Rock melodrama gives fragmented depiction of recovery
Assayas wrote this hyperactive and over-ambitious film expressly for his ex-wife, Hong Kong mega-star Maggie Cheung. She plays Emily, a "rock widow." That's what she becomes in the opening scene when her musician main squeeze (James Johnson) OD's near a Canadian steel mill. Emily's reaction is to get high on the same drugs and sit all night in an old American car staring at the ruined landscape while we listen to big sweeping passages from Brian Eno.
Six months later Emily gets out of prison for possession and seeks out her in-laws in Vancouver, who've been raising a little boy she had with the late rock star. The grandpa is Nick Nolte. Chastened by her boyfriend's death and a jail term, she now wants to start a new life and be allowed to take over the care of her son. In a painful effort to recreate herself, she opts for Paris because London has "too many memories." Only it's "trop de souvenirs" now, because the multilingual Cheung has switched necessarily to French. 'Clean' is in a mixture of French and English like Assayas' previous film 'demonlover'. This time a dash of Cantonese Chinese is added in when Emily waitresses in a big restaurant for a while in Paris before an interview with the Printemps chain, as a result of which -- somewhat improbably -- she is hired as the manager of a new store "for active women." Eventually she gets to see Nolte and little Jay (James Dennis), who both come over to Paris from London where they've gone from Vancouver (no shortage of travel in 'Clean') to get tests and treatments for grandma (Martha Henry).
During the movie's most touching scene, in the Vincennes Zoo with the boy -- who's long ago been turned against her by the grandma -- Emily manages a heart-to-heart chat that convinces her son she's not why his dad died -- and might deserve to be his full-time mom. As the movie ends she's gathered the courage to return to North America and record a song in a San Francisco studio (one last move in the director's endless locale-shifting game). Several brief scenes between Nolte and Cheung that show mutual empathy ("I believe in forgiveness," he tells her) also have some emotional authenticity.
The Canadian opening has a kind of gritty trashiness. The conflicts between Emily and her husband and music people are confusing and disturbing; they're not exposition. But then they are: they show a lifestyle about to implode. Brian Eno's music provides a desolate background for the already bluntly metaphorical dark satanic mills (Assayas may mean the stark steel foundry to stand for the music industry) and for the ugly quarrel between Emily and her husband. The shot of the car at dawn is a memorable and poetic image of the end of a lifestyle. The director has talent: he just needs to channel it better.
As a depiction of the recovery process this is all smoke and mirrors. Most of what goes on in rebuilding a life is interior and that's hard to show in a film. "Fake it till you make it" is an important recovery slogan describing the early 12-step process: but if an actress accurately reproduces the effect of "faking it" the result is necessarily going to look chilly and artificial. Finally Maggie Cheung may be, at least in this her European/western persona, too composed and self-possessed a person to illustrate the sufferings of drug rehabilitation, though the absence of heavy histrionics is a plus. Another traditional rule of recovery is not to make any major changes in the first year -- a rule Emily frantically violates. Obviously, one abstains. But she is depicted going through methadone to illegally acquired painkillers to marijuana to being drug-free. The sense of fits and starts is valid, but the implication of such a progression's being part of successful recovery is a questionable one. Even advocates of the film admit that the interwoven scenes of Emily with crypto-lesbian bohemian characters and the unruly behavior of these women among themselves are nothing but a confusing distraction. Self-restraint seems a quality unknown to this director.
Emily has but one purpose: to remake herself -- to become "clean" -- so that she may have her little boy back. That is so simple, and it's all that keeps her going. But although this film deals with more down-to-earth material than 'demonlover', it handles it in too fragmented and detached a manner. Assayas seems to like chaos. Perhaps he's a little too distracted by the complexities in the life of a woman who after all has become very focused. Though this may not be the great performance some think, Cheung deserves credit for keeping at least some sense of consistency through the dizzying background shifts.
'Clean' was warmly received in France with prizes at Cannes and critical acclaim afterward in 2004, though the whole process may owe more to Assayas' and Cheung's enthusiastic fan base than to ultimate merit. 'demonlover' did well with fans too (though not so well with critics in France or the US) despite the fact that it self-destructs halfway through. American aficionados have been panting to see 'Clean' but Variety's David Rooney had predicted that only "a marginal release" for 'Clean' was likely. The movie opened in New York April 28, 2006, 18 months after the Paris opening.