Movie Review


Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Beatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar

here are, to be sure, a lot of movies about drugs and drug use, but, off the top of my head, I’m tempted to say that Olivier Assayas’s Clean may be the first I’ve seen that doesn’t proselytize or sensationalize or romanticize its subject matter. Think: Traffic. Think: Sid & Nancy. Think: Requiem for a Dream. To varying degrees, these films have their arguable merits, but, respectively, they clumsily attempt to make Grand Statements, gratuitously wallow in drug-addled squalor, and pummel you over the head with Film School 101 stylization.

Assayas’s ability to eschew such pitfalls seems linked directly to the fact that Clean is neither a film about drug addiction nor a political issue movie. It includes cameo appearances by Tricky, Metric, and Mazzy Star’s David Roback (all as themselves), but isn’t really a movie about music either. What it is, first and foremost, is a character study, and a showcase for one of the great actresses of her generation, Assayas’s ex-wife Maggie Cheung.

"My son is...different..."

The two first collaborated on 1996’s Irma Vep, Assayas’s breakthrough feature and perhaps the first time Western audiences took notice of its extraordinary leading lady. Cheung had been working prolifically in Hong Kong since the mid-eighties, having starred in two Wong Kar-wai films and won the Best Actress prize at the Berlin Film Festival for her devastating turn as the ill-fated Chinese movie star Ruan Ling-yu in Stanley Kwan’s Actress. Irma Vep, however, provided Cheung, who was born in Hong Kong but spend much of her childhood in England and speaks English and French fluently, a prime vehicle for her distinctly multicultural talents.

As Emily Wang, a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Cheung turns in a deeply sympathetic performance in a role that many other actresses (Halle Berry, Charlize Theron) would’ve played purely for superficial “grittiness.” Having been released from prison for a drug possession charge tied to the death of her rock-star boyfriend Lee Hauser (of an overdose that Emily has, meanwhile, been harshly blamed for in the press), Emily heads to Paris to rebuild her life so that she can win back custody of her son, Jay, from Lee’s parents, Albrecht and Rosemary. The premise may seem like typical Lifetime Television for Women fodder, but Assayas’s execution is so frank and unsentimental that the resulting film is as much a standard-issue weepie as Les Destinees is a Merchant-Ivory period-piece or demonlover is a conventional thriller.

On the clock...

Much of the film’s success is due also to its uniformly strong supporting cast, who lend the material real gravitas. Nick Nolte, for years a punch-line due to his own problems with substance abuse and a particularly unflattering mug-shot, has grown into a sort of American treasure in his AARP years. Far from his famously gruff turns of late in films like Paul Schrader’s Affliction and Ang Lee’s Hulk, he brings warmth and a kindness of spirit to the role of Albrecht, a man torn between bearing a grudge after his son’s death and forgiving Emily. As Rosemary, less empathetic to Emily’s side of the story and herself on the verge of dying, Martha Henry is his match. French actresses Beatrice Dalle (of Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day) and Jeanne Balibar (of Jacques Rivette’s Va Savoir) are superb, too, in smaller parts as, respectively, Emily’s good friend and former lover.

That said, this is absolutely Cheung’s movie. In Clean’s most indelible scene, Emily caresses the bare back of a man lying dead in his bed, having suffered a drug overdose. It’s not Lee. But from the color vanished from Emily’s face and the quivering of her body, it’s clear that it might as well be. It’s one of Cheung’s finest screen moments, and if there was in any justice in the (film) world, you’d be hearing her name announced come Oscar night.

By: Josh Timmermann
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