"Clean" is the second film that director Olivier Assayas wrote with actress Maggie Cheung in mind. When they first collaborated on 1996's "Irma Vepp", Cheung was a big Hong Kong movie star whom Assayas didn't know well. Now Cheung is Assayas' ex-wife (their divorce was finalized during filming), and "Clean" provides her an opportunity to create a more intimate portrait. The result is one of the most striking performances of 2004, for which Maggie Cheung won a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival and a French Cesar nomination in 2005. Cinematographer Eric Gautier was likewise honored with a Cannes win and Cesar nomination. "Clean" is a French independent film but has a wonderful international quality -due to its diverse cast and locations- without sacrificing its clear sense of place in Canada and Paris, France. Assayas cast real musicians wherever he could, in keeping with docu-drama and neo-realist traditions of populating movies with authentic supporting players.
Lee (James Johnson) is a talented rock musician and songwriter whose career has fizzled in part due to a heroin habit. His junkie wife Emily (Maggie Cheung), an aspiring singer, is argumentative, unrealistic, and generally hated and blamed for Lee's demise by his friends. When Lee dies of an overdose, Emily is busted for heroin possession. When she gets out of prison, Lee's father Albrecht (Nick Nolte) is kind to Emily but asks that she not make any attempt to see her son Jay (James Dennis), whom Albrecht and his wife Rosemary (Martha Henry) have raised since Emily and Lee abandoned the boy on account of their itinerant, wasted lifestyle. In no position to take care of a child anyway, Emily returns to Paris, where she had a career and good contacts in the entertainment industry. Trying hard to stay off the drugs and hold down a job, with uneven success, Emily decides that more than anything she wants to see her son.
Emily is not likeable. She is needy and tenacious. She makes bad decisions. She's not sure if she'd rather have a settled, safe life or be a junkie. But she knows she wants to know her son. Somehow her desire to connect with Jay and her struggle, though not always triumphant, to normalize her life reaches out to the audience. Emily makes things difficult for herself and for those around her. She's not someone I'd want to be around in real life. But she is fascinating and empathetic in this film. Nick Nolte deserves praise as well for his craggy, perceptive grandpa, who is intimidated by children but loves his grandson and reaches out to Emily. The odd cast of characters who are Emily's circle in Paris make an interesting tableau. They are vivid enough to keep us interested in a lot of scenes that are superfluous. Vibrant writing by Olivier Assayas keeps "Clean" from resembling one of those plodding, overbearing "portrait of a junkie" films. In English, French, and occasionally Cantonese with English subtitles.
The DVD (Palm Pictures 2006): Bonus features are 5 interviews plus a theatrical trailer. Olivier Assayas (19 min) discusses (in English) the significance of the film's title, developing the character of Emily, Maggie Cheung's acting style, working with Nick Nolte, and using real musicians in the film. Maggie Cheung (14 min) talks about Emily and how she and Olivier work together. Nick Nolte (7 min) talks about working on French independent film and working with Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier. Tricky (4 min), a British musician who has a small role in the film, recounts how he met Assayas. Metric (3 min), the band that appears in the opening scenes, compare making movies to being on tour. Optional English subtitles for the film.