Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) is a woman who wrestles with her dream of becoming a singer, her fitness as a mother, and daily life without her partner Lee (James Johnston). Her past is riddled with drugs and regrets, the result of which left Lee dead in a desolate motel room in Hamilton, Ontario, and landed Emily with a six-month jail sentence. The only thing that she desires for the future is a loving relationship with her son Jay, who is being cared for by Lee’s parents, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry). While Rosemary blames Emily for the death of Lee, Albrecht recognizes the importance of the bond between a mother and her son, and his faith sets the standard for the faith Emily must find in herself. CLEAN follows Emily to Hamilton, Paris, London and San Francisco and in three languages, as she battle for a place in a world reluctant to forget the woman she has been and unwilling to accept her as the woman she longs to be.
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Top Customer Reviews
Nick Nolte, as the grandfather does some terrific, nuanced work as a flinty man, with a soft heart.
He won't let Cheung see her son until she gets her life together, which she circuitously
does, weaning herself off drugs, getting basic work, and eventually starting the process of reconnecting to her son, especially as Nolte realizes, with his wife dying, and his own aging, the boy will eventually need his mother.
The film avoids the usual clichés and sensationalism of drug movies - no throwing
up or screaming withdrawals. It's low key and real, filled with small moments of life
rather than than dramatic highlights. It's willing to have lead characters who are unlikable
and selfish at times, and yet still makes us care for, and be moved by them.
But there's also a flatness to it. And a sense of familiarity and predictability to the plot, if
not the execution. It's great that it doesn't fall into melodrama, but it feels distanced. As
one critic put it `it avoids moralizing, but fails to replace it with anything'. A bit harsh, but
not without some truth.
Also, Cheung, while very good in spots, never seems believable as a junkie; she's gorgeous healthy looking and luminous on drugs or off.
On the other hand the photography is beautiful, and the score is filled with wonderful and effective music by Brian Eno.
Worth a look for the acting, and the small grace moments throughout.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
Cheung is a former celebrity hoping to reignite the singing career of her husband while harboring her own entertainment aspirations. Their tempestuous relationship is plagued by failure in the music business and a dependency on drugs. Their son is all but forgotten and living with Cheung's in-laws in Canada (led by a restrained Nick Nolte). When tragedy strikes, Cheung's life is stripped away as she faces prison and the possibility of reform. Wanting to reestablish a relationship with her son, Cheung attempts to redefine her place and battles to get and stay clean.
Many "addict" films are fueled by powerful, but often over-the-top, performances. Cheung's portrayal, however, is remarkably understated and much more realistic due to its lack of big showstopping theatrics. This is just a real woman, complicated and not particularly likable, who is trying to put her life back on track. You root for her even as you are aware of her many faults and inadequacies. Interesting and believable, she seems just as likely to doom herself to failure as she is to make the right choices for her life. More intelligent than "smart," Cheung is her own worst enemy--and realizing what is necessary to get her son back is often easier than actually taking the appropriate steps to do so. She and Nolte share some great scenes--filled with both compassion and mistrust in equal measure. And her interactions with her son have a remarkable candor and dignity.
Cheung delivers this astute performance in three languages--Cantonese, French and English--and she is the primary reason to watch "Clean." Taking Best Actress honors at Cannes for this film, she has proven herself to be a dynamic talent. The film is alternately downbeat and hopeful, and it straddles this line adeptly. The film's quiet resonance will stay with you--there is a haunting, lyrical quality to this picture rather than moments of great revelation. Thus, the film remains a complex character study that is grounded in reality. Definitely worth a look! KGHarris, 05/07.
Maggie Cheung's overwrought performance lends instability to her character's future. As Emily Wang, she excels at sorrowful emotions and hopelessness balanced by a small light of awareness. She has lost everything after her husband dies and her music career seems to be over, due to misconceptions.
Emily progresses through the stages of complete renunciation of cultural norms to a more balanced lifestyle. We watch her soul being born into a new world where she can express her creativity and feel fulfilled as a mother. The story gains a sense of reality through the use of real musicians and especially realistic settings like train stations and even a trip to the zoo.
Nick Nolte gives a sensitive and wise performance as the forgiving father-in-law. He seems to not only look after Emily's young son, but he becomes an angel to his daughter-in-law who struggles to re-establish herself in the world.
If she can turn her life around or give up her addictive lifestyle, she may get what she wants in the end. Her struggle is a profound and moving example of what you have to do to overcome addictive behaviors. In the end, this movie is as much about creating music as it is about creating your life. This is the hero's journey from a female perspective and I truly enjoyed seeing a woman make difficult and life-changing decisions that led to very positive results and life affirming moments.
~The Rebecca Review
After Lee overdoses on the drugs Emily purchased she's faced with a dilemma. She's facing six-years in prison for possession, but even more so Lee's parents are requesting she stay away from her son, for his sake, and at the moment she agrees. She's not in any position to care for a child. After her release she struggles to stay straight, struggles to hold a job and she begins to realize her sole purpose is to be fit to care for her child, so that she can see him again.
The transformation Emily undertakes is a beautiful and inspiring thing to watch. Maggie is completely devoted to her character and she shows so many emotions, from complete selfishness to utter selflessness covered in vast amounts of guilt. Nick Nolte is also brilliant here. His sympathy for Emily is heartwarming, and his depression over the loss of his son is shown in his attachment to his grandson Jay. The final frames of this film will truly touch you, hold you tight and prove to you the power of change and the ability to do so when the ones you love most are affected.