Clean: a tale of caution and redemption lacking in spark and realism

Olivier Assayas, “Clean” (2004)

Rare are the movies in which two main characters happen to be father and his daughter-in-law yet just this month I’ve already seen two: Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Olivier Assayas’ “Clean” which stars the French director’s ex-wife Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang, a washed-up cable TV music show host whose musician husband dies from a drug overdose. The commercial music media blames Wang for giving her husband the drugs he used to kill himself and Wang herself spends time in prison for drug possession. After her release, Wang tries holding down a number of dreary jobs without success while also attempting to reconcile with her young son who is in the care of his grandparents Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). Rosemary herself is dying and Albrecht does not know if he can cope as sole custodian once Rosemary is gone. After many setbacks and personal crises, a glimmer of hope appears for Emily with a possible career as a singer beckoning in San Francisco and Albrecht throwing his support behind her.

The movie is a conventional treatment of a drug addict struggling to pick up the pieces of her life together after a major tragedy and trying to reform and fit into a world she doesn’t really care for. The movie dallies between portraying a character who must face up to responsibility for her life and her son, who must negotiate life’s tough paths without a man on whom she leaned for support, on the one hand and on the other a message about finding something you love to do and which allows you to develop your talents and let you fly. Cheung delivers a fine and moving performance as Wang with all her flaws and brittle personality: a woman who has been self-indulgent perhaps for too long and who is learning the hard way about having to compromise her individuality in a world that cares as little for her as she does for it. Nolte gives just as fine a performance as Albrecht who empathises with Wang and is willing to give her another chance when all her friends in the music business distrust her and withdraw support at the last moment. Wang finally learns who her real ally is.

It should be said also that just as Wang starts changing her attitude and habits, Albrecht also undergoes a change in his attitude towards his daughter-in-law when he discovers his wife is terminally ill. His willingness to change helps Wang to grasp an opportunity to advance in a new career related to music. Some viewers may object that Wang might be returning to an environment where she will once again be exposed to drugs or to the stresses that encouraged or pushed her into drug addiction. However the music Wang performs in the film’s final scenes seems as far away from the new-wave / post-punk music scene that Wang and her musician husband had favoured originally as the dead-end retail jobs Wang had pursued earlier in the film.

Apart from the two leads’ performances, the film lacks spark and is over-earnest in its character study of an ex-junkie trying to rebuild her life. The pace is very glacial and the style is very flat. Not personally knowing any drug addicts or ex-addicts, I cannot comment on how realistic the film is but it seems rather peculiar for the main character not to be in rehabilitation or seeing a social worker or counsellor while weaning herself off drugs. Cheung looks rather too healthy most of the time and for her to run to familiar friends and places where she and her husband got involved in the drug scene in the first place would seem rather counter-productive. Perhaps the movie’s script-writers were imagining Wang as an Asian version of Marianne Faithfull or Nico; they’d have been better off perhaps talking to ordinary ex-junkies who eventually made good and basing Wang’s character and story on their stories.

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