From the first frames of Clean I was struck by, well, how clean it looks. The images are lit with the evenly flooded, cold luminescence of fluorescent lights. The compositions are uncluttered with a geometric attention to shapes and lines which, combined with the lighting, accentuates the effect of modern industrial architecture. It takes place in a landscape reminiscent of Scandinavia or the Netherlands, and although the film takes place in Canada, Paris, and London, this seems deliberate given the stark personal story contained within (and director Olivier Assayas’ love of Ingmar Bergman). This humanistic, traditionally shot and edited film is a far cry from Assayas’ previous collaboration with actress Maggie Cheung, the off-the-wall deconstructionist Irma Vep.
In an interview included on the DVD Assayas says, “It’s the story that creates from within [itself] the style.” The style could serve a number of purposes. The story follows the attempts of Emily (Cheung), the girlfriend of minor rock star Lee Hauser (James Johnston), to quit heroin and create a responsible life in hope of wresting her son Jay (James Dennis) from his grandparents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry) after Lee overdoses in a motel room. The gray-blue backdrop that Emily inhabits could represent the cold harshness of the uncaring world in which she must now rebuild her life and her tough, emotionally guarded way of doing so. It could also show an eagerness not to wallow in the excessively decadent visual clichés of a 100 other movies about heroin addicts in order to emphasize the emotional over the physical.
Surprisingly, this is actually a problem because in the first portion of the film, which follows Emily and Lee to the overdose and Emily’s subsequent arrest for heroin possession, a little sense of squalor would have been nice. There is nothing to offset the opening from the rest of the film. We don’t really see that Emily’s life is all that difficult. Nobody likes Emily because she’s accused of being a typical rock star groupie harpy and a “junkie to the bone”, but it seems like this is her natural personality. When Emily gets out of jail Assayas says, “I wanted the break to be brutal.” It’s not.
In the beginning of the film Assayas does do an excellent job of setting up the lives of Emily and her friends, jet setting mid-level musicians and artists. They play medium-sized clubs and stay in decent motels. They are well into middle age and have built a support network at record labels, magazines, and PR firms. This reality is heightened by as-themselves performances by Emily Haines and Metric, Tricky (although his role makes no sense), and producer Dave Roback. Cheung says that Assayas “cast us for who we were and didn’t want us to act any different,” and there is a naturalness and attention to detail within this rarely depicted world that greatly enhances the drama. The people within it are struggling to succeed. Success is not guaranteed but neither is failure. Likewise, Emily’s use of drugs is self-destructive, but not a death wish, and her attempts to change are hard, but not impossible.
After jail, Emily moves to Paris where she tries to get a decent job by exploiting old music industry connections, but has to settle for unappealing alternatives. The producers and scene makers from Emily’s younger years here exude an effortless cool, but it’s the self-defense mechanism of aging tastemakers on the verge of becoming irrelevant. The immersion in this cool world could easily, and sometimes does, distract from Emily’s tender quest at the story’s center. However, the juxtaposition between Emily’s outer world and her fragile inner state is usually enhanced in the moments when her facade cracks. Her desire to be with her son is conveyed through momentary silent gestures. While anticipating a weekend visit from Jay, a brief shot showing Emily preparing his bed, taken from outside the bedroom, touchingly captures the frustrated love coursing through her veins. What at first seems like unemotional behavior becomes a sign of deep inner strength. As an executive’s assistant says to her, “You’ve taken your share of blows and not given up. That’s why I respect you.”
In these moments the personal connection between the director and star pays off in a natural everyday realness that doesn’t feel forced. Assayas and Cheung were briefly married and it was the director’s goal, after getting to know her, to show a side of Cheung’s personality and talent rarely seen in her popular roles. “When I made Irma Vep I was filming a Hong Kong movie star.”
Occasionally the film is too reserved. Like Emily, Clean opens and closes its emotional valves at its own choosing, and not always where it should. The ending, where Emily sings a self-penned song in a recording studio, should be the denouement of this character, when we sense to the truest extent what this character has emotionally been through. Afterwards everyone around her seems to think she’s done a great job and Emily acts exhausted, but the scene feels underplayed to a fault and tarnishes Cheung’s otherwise wonderfully intimate performance.
Emily’s character and Cheung’s portrayal is enhanced by Nolte’s pitch perfect embodiment of Lee’s father, Albrecht. Nolte’s grizzled warmth exudes love, patience, responsibility, and hard-won wisdom — he’s the ideal adult in a film where 40-year-olds still want to live like they’re 20. Albrecht is the guardian of Jay and is close to the boy in a way he never was with Lee. However, he believes the boy needs to be with his mother. In his first lengthy meeting with Emily, Albrecht’s advice anchors the film, “I believe in forgiveness. People change. If they need to, they change.”
Documenting one person’s potential for change is certainly an affecting idea and Assayas says he wanted to make Clean “extremely simple and universal as possible.” What’s at stake is whether or not Emily is disciplined enough to meet her own challenge and lead a straight life. For this character study to work Emily needs to be an engrossing person, however selfish or unlikable her actions. Maggie Cheung is certainly more than talented and interesting enough for the role. However Assayas’ stylistic choices can make the action a little too reserved and underwhelming for the story, a too tidy visual approach for a character that staggers and stumbles through life.