out of Five
Running time: 110
Flawed but engaging drama with compelling performances by Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte.
Maggie Chueng (Hero) won the Best Actress award for her role in Clean when it premiered at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. It’s directed by her ex-husband, Oliver Assayas - Trivia Fans may like to note that they divorced half-way through the shoot. Assayas is one of those directors that critics tend to love more than audiences, but Clean is an engaging drama that’s worth seeing despite its flaws.
Cheung plays Emily Wang, a Franco-Chinese Yoko Ono-like figure, married to Lee Hauser (James Johnston), a washed up 1980s rock star. When Lee is found dead of a heroin overdose, Emily is arrested and serves six months in a Canadian prison for possession, during which she undergoes rehab.
After serving her time, she moves back to Paris and reacquaints herself with some of her old friends (including Beatrice Dalle as Elena). However, a court has ordered that her young son Jay (James Dennis) should stay in Canada with Lee’s parents, Albrecht and Rosemary Hauser (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry), and Emily eventually decides that she will get her life back on track, in order to be a mother to her son.
The title of the film is a little misleading, given that it suggests a film that focuses on the problems of going cold turkey; in fact the film is a lot more upbeat than that and it’s unusual to see a film about a recovering drug addict that doesn’t feature a single scene where the lead character is tempted to take drugs again.
Cheung is excellent as Emily, a flawed, vulnerable character who is stronger than she first appears. Initially she is unsympathetic, but her spell in prison changes her for the better, as illustrated by her two scenes with Canadian actor Don McKellar (as Vernon).
Nick Nolte is terrific as Albrecht; there’s a kindness in his eyes and voice that is genuinely moving. Casting him as a sober, responsible father-figure must have seemed like a bold decision, given Nolte’s own turbulent personal history, but it pays off brilliantly – he’s utterly compelling in every one of his scenes.
Elsewhere, there’s strong support from the likes of McKellar and Jeanne
Balibar (as Emily’s friend Irene), but Beatrice Dalle (she was Betty Blue, you know) is given far too little to do.
The film’s biggest flaw is its bizarre insistence on real-life casting – at one point Emily spends about 15 minutes trying to get backstage to see Tricky (playing himself) because she somehow thinks he can help her get her son back.
Similarly, producer David Roback also plays himself, which necessitates the following exchange of dialogue: “You know, he had a band called Mazzy Star.” “Oh, I’ve heard of Mazzy Star – they were good.” These scenes are nothing less than embarrassing – it’s almost as if Assayas offered a cameo role as themselves to anyone who put money into the film.
In short, Clean is a surprisingly upbeat, hopeful film that is worth seeing despite its flaws, particularly for the performances by Cheung and Nolte. Recommended.