I’m not sure when, exactly, Olivier Assayas became an eccentric – I


catch any warning signs in Late August, Early

September; then again,

I was a bit discomfited by Irma Vep, which was as much an

essay on the filmmaking industry as it was (or was not, quite) a compelling

narrative. With 2002’s Demonlover, a weirdly moralistic screed

involving global corporate intrigue, sexually explicit anime and Internet

porn, he veered into reactionary territory, dramatizing the dehumanizing,

exploitative power of the Web in much the same way David Cronenberg

once made a scary monster out of cable television in Videodrome.

In that context, and on paper, Clean seems like a settling

down. Assayas once again winds his narrative down to human scale and

returns to the artistic compatriate he found once upon a time in erstwhile

lover (and erstwhile wife) Maggie Cheung. She plays Emily, wife

of a rock star named Lee Hauser, who’s tangled up in drugs and

struggling to reinvent a flagging career. When Lee winds up dead of

a motel-room drug overdose, Emily joins the inspired-by-the-true-story

tradition of superstar spouses who struggle to recover their balance

outside the single-degree-of-separation spotlight glare that both illuminates

and casts shadows across their own lives.

As personal as the story is, and as quietly intense as Cheung’s

performance is, Clean is punctuated with weird fillips and

indulgences. Released after being jailed on drug charges, Emily knows

that if she wants to regain custody of her son, she will have to prove

herself to her gruff father-in-law, Albrecht (Nick Nolte). To do that,

she tries to enlist the help of Tricky (!), who drops into the show,

playing himself, as a massive sort of non sequitur. It’s

explained, in dialogue, that he’s an old friend of Lee Hauser’s


gained Albrecht’s trust by honoring Lee’s memory, and therefore

somebody Cheung hopes will vouch for her with Albrecht – but

it doesn’t wash. It feels like an elaborate excuse walk-on cameo

by a star Assayas admires. At the same time, there’s something

chilly and beautiful in the way Tricky rebuffs Cheung’s repeated

attempts to enlist his help with an emphatically silent shake of the

head. He’s like The Godfather declining to help you out of a

tough spot, or the banker denying your loan application. And then he

disappears from the narrative.

As out-from-under-addiction stories go, Clean goes down easy. Emily’s

struggle with addiction is discussed more in exposition than it is

demonstrated in performance — though there’s something just right about

the scene that shows her working, pathetically,

as a server at a Chinese restaurant. (It might not be rock-bottom,

but seeing the beautiful, ordinarily so self-possessed Maggie Cheung

waitressing inspires a certain level of cognitive dissonance.) The

gist of the whole piece seems to be that she will redeem herself only

by creating something to call her own, therefore crawling out from

underneath both her jones and her husband’s

reputation and ensuring that she’ll

be able, psychologically, to make some kind of life together with her

son. And Cheung’s singing, in an emotionally charged scene where

she takes those first steps toward happiness, is — well, her

English-language vocals are competent, but rather idiosyncratic. And

that performance inspires contradictory feelings at a crucial emotional

nexus for the film, which starts to feel less “character study” and

more “Maggie Cheung vehicle.”


Then again, Nico and Yoko Ono had unusual voices that both grated on

lots of nerves, and they

both became pop icons of a high order in the U.S. music industry, so

maybe Emily does have a shot at the big time. The good news is that


performance in the film is, perhaps uncharacteristically, understated

and inviting. She holds the screen together even as the threadbare

narrative diffuses. Nolte makes a gentle and wise surrogate father

figure — it’s

fascinating to watch the pas

de deux between the two of them, as Emily tries to win

Albrecht’s confidence

and Albrecht considers quietly how much of it he’s willing to

yield (and how much of it he must give away). And Assayas still has

a way with the handheld camera that’s damned near preternatural — rich

in color and texture, with the occasional revelatory touch that makes

so many sins forgiven. There are visuals here, wrangled by ace cinematographer

Eric Gautier, like a shot of a car parked overlooking a field of industrial

smokestacks, that have an eloquence and power that only become more

apparent in hindsight. The cutting, by Luc Barnier, is seamless, working

the film across the cuts like a nimble-fingered massage over your pleasure

centers. Whatever else it may do, Clean never bores.

Bottom line, Assayas remains a sensitive director whose persistent

involvement with deeply troubled characters and evocative imagery is

admirable and, in some ways, unrivaled. He’s one of the best

we have. It’s just that Clean plays

like the work of a great auteur working in sandbox mode — the

casting of Cheung, Nolte, and Béatrice Dalle in the same film

is sort of the arthouse equivalent of a fantasy football draft, with

cameos by Tricky and Mazzy Star founder David Roback adding rock-star

gloss — to

build a world that has too much of the whiff of hipster fabulism about

it to play at gut level.

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