Film-Forward Review: [CLEAN]

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Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang
Photo: Palm

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Directed & Written by: Olivier Assayas.
Produced by: Edouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli, Xavier Marchand & Niv Fichman.
Director of Photography: Eric Gautier.
Edited by: Luc Barnier.
Released by: Palm.
Language: English, French & Cantonese with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: France/Canada/UK. 110 min. Rated: R.
With: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, Martha Henry & James Johnston.

Eight years after the fantastically hip and comic Irma Vep, Clean marks the second collaboration of director Olivier Assayas and his now ex-wife Maggie Cheung. This time, however, the role of Emily Wang does not allow Cheung the lightweight charm of donning a skintight, black latex outfit. Instead, Clean bears an emotional bleakness that may in part be due to the real-life divorce of Assayas and Cheung that took place during filming.

The film follows the resurrection of Emily out of the pit of music industry hell. A washed-out junkie wife of a former ‘80's rock star, Emily shuffles from town to town as her husband, Lee Hauser (James Johnston), performs in small gigs. In true Yoko Ono fashion, Emily receives much of the blame from Lee’s manager as well as the media for debilitating Lee’s career. Their worse fears come true when he dies of an overdose on the drugs she had bought. Emily is seized by the police, locked up for heroin possession, and loses custody of the son she had with Hauser and what little of his fame she had left.

Assayas, who wrote the role of Emily specifically for Cheung, has created a refreshingly vibrant, powerful role for the actress known predominantly for playing luminous, heartbreakingly selfless women in the likes of In the Mood for Love, As Tears Go By and Hero. However, it’s clear that Cheung struggles to harness Emily; her punked-out, shrill performance seems unfit for her as does her crimpy, '80’s hairdo she sports throughout the film. Cheung is much better in Emily’s tender moments, which largely involve her young son Jay (James Dennis). He has always been Emily’s only soft spot, and after her release from prison, she realizes she needs him back in her life in Paris. However, Lee’s parents have raised Jay for most of his life in Vancouver, and both Lee’s mother Rosemary (Martha Henry) and father Albrecht (Nick Nolte) refuse to give Jay up until Emily cleans up her act.

Nolte, despite his severely disheveled turn in the grandfather role, grounds the film with yet another startling and underrated performance. The death of his son brings Albrecht and his wife in contact with the tumultuous life in the music industry Lee had led, and the scene in which Albrecht supervises the production of Lee’s posthumous album is one of the most unexpectedly tender moments in the film. Albrecht is also the only supporter of Emily as she struggles to break free from years of drugs, self-hate and broken dreams that have made her a relic in a new era of music. When Rosemary’s weakening health forces Albrecht to travel with her and Jay to London for tests, Albrecht gives Emily a chance to reconnect with and finally do right by her son.

Though shot against the backdrop of several cities – Paris, Vancouver, London and San Francisco – Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier have created an almost colorless, bleak world. No matter where Emily goes, she consistently runs into herself. Assayas is a director who strives to capture the natural chemistry of his actors with minimal intrusion, even allowing them to add dialogue, but in Clean, it is difficult to shake off the feeling of alienation from whatever reality Cheung is trying to create. Marie Iida
April 28, 2006



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