Clean (2004) Movie Review

“Clean” is a film best known for the remarkable central performance of actress Maggie Cheung, for which she won the top award at the 2004 Cannes film festival. Also of interest is the fact that it was directed by Oliver Assayas, to whom Cheung was married until the film was actually in production. Apparently, the split was amicable, which is just as well, as “Clean” comes across at times as a love letter from the director to the actress, focusing entirely on her character and seemingly written with the sole purpose of giving her the chance to demonstrate her thespian skills to the full.

Assayas is a director whose works have tended to divide critics, from his interesting and generally well-regarded film industry parody, “Irma Vep” (also starring Cheung) through to his last effort, the odd “Demonlover”, based around the production of adult ‘hentai’ animation. His films have in common an air of authenticity and a determinedly realistic approach, which in the case of “Clean” serves the material well. Although “Clean” is a little too conventional in narrative terms, it is believable, and contains enough honest emotion to make it more interesting and affecting than it may otherwise have been. This is helped hugely by Cheung, whose portrayal of an egotistical junkie coming to terms with life is remarkable, and well deserving of the accolades it has been awarded.

Beginning in Canada, the film follows Emily (Cheung), whose relationship with her rock star boyfriend Lee seems to be held together only by their shared heroin dependence. After he overdoses, and she is handed a six month prison sentence, custody of Jay, their young son goes to Lee’s parents, Albrecht and Rosemary (played respectively by the legendary Nick Nolte and Martha Henry), with whom the boy has been living with for some time. Released from jail and barred from seeing her son until she overcomes her addiction, Emily heads to Paris where she tries to put her life back together and relaunch her music industry career. Things don’t turn out as planned, with suspicion and temptation around every corner, and Emily begins to lose hope, until she receives word from Albrecht that he and his wife are staying in London, and recent developments have forced him to reconsider what is best for Jay.

Although the synopsis may make “Clean” sound like a slice of television melodrama, Assayas (who also wrote the script) deftly avoids the majority of cliché of the drug addiction sub-genre, both of the sentimental and shock tactics variety. He opts instead for a far more candid and genuine approach which, if not actually gritty, is at least more credible than many of its peers. Assayas shoots everything in his usual style, meaning a great deal of jittery hand held camera work, lending “Clean” an almost documentary like feel, which helps to give the impression that the film is an honest attempt to explore the life of a real person, rather than a simple filmic stereotype.

“Clean” focuses on the affects of addiction and on the central character, rather than on the drugs themselves, and as such is free of the glamorous needle shots or fast edited pill popping scenes which so often predominate similar efforts. This is a move which allows Assayas to explore the central protagonist in great depth, and the character of Emily is compelling and well written, being at once aggressive and fragile. The whole film hinges on whether or not the viewer will sympathise with her struggle, and so it is fortunate that Cheung gives what may be the performance of her career. Occupying virtually every frame of the film, Cheung never fails to convince, displaying a stunning versatility and range as she effortlessly switches between languages, and gives her character a believable sense of growth and development.

The downside is that the rest of the film is very much in Cheung’s shadow, with all of its events and subplots quite obviously revolving around her. As a result, several aspects of the narrative come across as rather redundant, and many of the supporting cast feel like mere anecdotes in what is her story alone. The film is well paced and generally interesting, though without a strong sense of narrative, it does at times seem somewhat adrift and unwisely whimsical. The ending in particular is less cathartic than would perhaps have been hoped, and so fails to satisfy.

Although the viewer does care about what happens to Emily, and her plight is indeed a compelling one, at the end of the day “Clean” is quite obviously an affecting, though undeniably average film which is boosted by an outstanding piece of acting by star Maggie Cheung.

Olivier Assayas (director) / Olivier Assayas, Malachy Martin, Sarah Perry (screenplay)
CAST: Maggie Cheung …. Emily Wang
Mary Moulds …. Woman
Nick Nolte …. Albrecht Hauser

Buy Clean on DVD