Combustible Celluloid
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With: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, Martha Henry, James Johnston, James Dennis, Rémi Martin, Laetitia Spigarelli, Tricky
Written by: Olivier Assayas
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
MPAA Rating: R for drug content, language and brief nudity
Language: English, French, Cantonese with English subtitles
Running Time: 111
Date: 03/27/2004

Clean (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Clean' Slate

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Like many before him, film critic-turned-filmmaker Olivier Assayas has been faced with the difficult task of turning his love of watching film into a career making them.

His Irma Vep (1997) worked so beautifully because, like Jean-Luc Godard's best films, it was in itself a work of film criticism. The great Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung played herself, appearing in a new remake of Louis Feuillade's exemplary Les Vampires (1915), while egotistical filmmakers bickered and idiotic journalists asked fanboy questions.

Subsequently, Assayas floundered, searching for more films to make that would give him as much pleasure as watching them. He came up with the intelligent but unremarkable Late August, Early September (1999), the stagnant costume piece Les Destinées sentimentales (2002) and the erotic, technological Demonlover (2003), so ultra-cool it left many viewers baffled and cold.

During this period, Assayas and Cheung married, divorced a few years later and have now made their second film together, Clean.

It's a remarkably human and heartfelt tale unlike anything Assayas has yet produced. It's as if, for the first time in years, Assayas could see clearly.

The most amazing thing about Clean is what it's not: a touchy-feely, self-congratulatory anti-drug parable. Cheung's character Emily is a junkie, in a long-term relationship with a fallen rock star Lee Hauser (James Johnston), with whom she has a son, Jay (James Dennis).

The hot couple goes club-hopping, searching for the best record deals, while Jay has been dumped upon Lee's parents, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry).

One night, Emily scores some drugs and, after a fight, drives off to shoot up alone in her car. She returns in the morning, only to find a deceased, overdosed Lee. After six months of jail, drug rehab, and much bad press, she decides she wants to see Jay again.

Set in London and Paris, Clean is the story of Emily trying to become worthy of motherhood. Thankfully, Assayas is not interested in the details of Emily's addiction and recovery. He skips the obligatory DT scenes, or scenes of grizzled, friendly "sponsors" comforting Emily in her time of need. We get a few scenes of Emily downing methadone and, subsequently, tossing her prescription out the window of a moving train, but that's it.

As with Demonlover, Assayas' characters occupy an entirely man-made, technological world full of trains, cars, hotels, bars and clubs. This time, however, the soundtrack is warmer than Sonic Youth's buzz. Trip-hop/electronica star Tricky makes a cameo, and at one point, someone mentions the spacey, dreamy pop group Mazzy Star. That's exactly the tone the film takes. (Emily's own brand of pop music sounds a bit like the 1990s pop group, best known for their 1993 hit "Fade Into You.")

Throughout the film, Cheung -- who won Best Actress for this performance at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival -- does absolute wonders with her eyes and voice. She projects incredible strength, save for a couple scenes in which it all becomes too much, culminating in a trip to the zoo with Jay.

She converses with him, getting to know her little boy all over again, taking little verbal punches from him and stepping right back into the ring.

For years, Cheung was considered "cute" comedy relief to Jackie Chan and others in Hong Kong films, until director Stanley Kwan cast her as the legendary Chinese silent film star Ruan Ling-yu in Actress (a.k.a. Center Stage) (1992).

There she showed a seemingly unlimited range of acting chops to go with her considerable star power. In the years since she has given us a wide selection of memorable works (Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love is chief among them).

Cheung has her fans all over the world, but a few words should be spared here for Nolte, a dependable workhorse of an actor who rarely gets the credit he deserves. As grandpa Albrecht, he delivers perhaps the sweetest performance of his career.

Nolte's tenderness is one of the keys to the film; he seems happily passive, looking only to please those around him, but when his moment comes, he quietly slips in a bit of cunning that makes Albrecht even more lovable.

Clean doesn't bother to neatly wrap up all of Emily's problems, but it finds a logical place to close. Drugs are no longer an issue and there are still wounds to mend.

With Cheung at his side, Assayas has moved the greatest distance between two points: from his comfort zone, resting entirely within movies, to a new location as far away as possible from them and close to real life.

DVD Details: Palm Pcitures' DVD comes with trailers and interviews with Assayas, Nolte and Cheung.

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