Clean, the first predominantly English-language film by the French director Olivier Assayas, is similar to one of those moody, wounded rock ballads like Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” — angry, yet sedate; rambling, but hypnotic — full of love and hurt and the yearning for redemption. This is the story of two people who loved each other before their mutual addictions got in the way: Lee (British musician James Johnston, in his acting debut), a once-celebrated rock icon, now bottomed out and desperate for a new record deal, and his wife, Emily (Maggie Cheung), seen by the public as a destructive force in Lee’s life and career — a Courtney Love–type figure. Following one particularly intense row in a fleabag Ontario motel room, Emily takes off in a huff and spends what’s left of the night in her car, gazing out at the plumes of white smoke and sudden bursts of flame that emanate from some unspecified industrial expanse. When she returns in the morning, Lee is dead of an overdose and she is arrested on charges of possession.
Those would appear to be the makings of a movie-of-the-week melodrama in which the shock of Lee’s death sets Emily on the road to recovery, but like last year’s excellent Down to the Bone, Clean has neither want nor need of such heroic homilies. Nor does Assayas treat us to some protracted custody battle between Emily and her in-laws — Vancouver shipwright Albrecht (Nick Nolte, in one of his great, worn-down-by-the-weight-of-the-world performances) and his wife, Rosemary (legendary Canadian stage and screen star Martha Henry) — who have cared for Lee and Emily’s young son, Jay (James Dennis), almost since his birth. Much more believably, Emily realizes that — just out of jail and weaning herself off methadone — she’s anything but a fit mother, to say nothing of the fact that Jay is a veritable stranger to her. So she travels to Paris, where she reconnects with old friends from a previous life and only gradually comes to realize the futility of her present.
Perhaps it is impossible to describe Clean without making it sound conventional, and to some extent it is, especially if you compare it to Assayas’ two best-known previous films: the impish moviemaking valentine Irma Vep, which also starred Cheung (as herself), and the absurdist mindfuck known as Demonlover. But much as he did in his exquisite (and unjustly overlooked) early-20th-century family chronicle, Les Destinées, Assayas embraces those conventions and then transcends them — that is, no matter how many dozens of movies we’ve seen about junkies trying to go straight or how the death of a loved one can spark survivors to re-examine their own lives, the emotional truthfulness of Clean enters into our bloodstreams with its muted vigor, and we find ourselves getting hooked by this tale of getting unhooked.
To that end, Assayas is aided immeasurably by two key collaborators: cinematographer Eric Gautier, whose camera weaves and bobs through scenes on butterfly wings, finding vibrant bits of color and movement in the most seemingly ordinary cityscapes, nightclubs and hotel rooms; and Cheung, who won the Best Actress prize in Cannes for her work here, and who plays the role with hypnotic detachment, as if she’s a woman viewing her own life from a distant remove, a body snatcher unaware that she has snatched her own body. Cheung and Assayas were married once, and it’s clear from the tenderness with which he films her that he is still very much in love. But it may also be from this shared history of director and star that Clean derives its remarkable, lived-in sense of coming to terms with the past and moving toward that great blinding light that is the future.
CLEAN | Written and directed by OLIVIER ASSAYAS | Produced by EDOUARD WEIL, XAVIER GIANNOLI, XAVIER MARCHAND and NIV FICHMAN | Released by Palm Pictures | At Sunset 5 and Playhouse 7