Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 14, 2004 3:44 pm 
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Rock melodrama gives fragmented depiction of recovery

In this complex and ambitious new film by Olivier Assayas, in a part written expressly for her, his ex-wife the HongKong and international megastar Maggie Cheung plays Emily, a "rock widow," whose musician main squeeze OD's near a Canadian steel mill. Afterwards in sorrow she gets high on the same drugs and sits all night in an old American car staring at the ruined landscape while we listen to big sweeping passages from Brian Eno. Six months later when she gets out of prison for possession, she seeks out her in-laws in Vancouver, who're raising a little boy she had with the late husband. The grandpa is Nick Nolte. She wants to start a new life and be allowed to take over the care of her son. In a painful effort to recreate herself, she opts for Paris because London has "too many memories" -- only it's "trop de souvenirs" now, because the multilingual Cheung has switched necessarily to French. Later Emily is hired as the manager of a new Printemps store "for active women." Eventually she gets to see Nolte and little Jay (James Dennis), who both come over to Paris from London where they've gone from Vancouver (lots of travel in Clean) to get tests and treatments for Grandma.

During the movie's most touching scene, in the Vincennes Zoo with the boy, Emily manages a heart to heart chat that convinces him she's not why his dad died -- and might deserve to be his full-time mom. As the movie ends she's gathered the courage to return to North America and record a song in a San Francisco studio.

Emily has but one purpose: to remake herself -- to become "clean" -- so that she may have her little boy back. That is so simple, and it's all that keeps her going. But although this film deals with far more basic human material than Assayas' last film demonlover it does so in a rather distracting, curiously detached sort of way. Assayas seems to like chaos; perhaps he is a little too distracted by the complexities in the life of a woman who after all has become very focused. The Canadian scenes in the opening segment have a kind of gritty trashiness. The opening conflicts between Emily and her husband and music people are confusing and disturbing; they're not exposition -- but then they are: they show a lifestyle about to implode. Brian Eno's music provides a desolate background for the already bluntly metaphorical dark satanic mills (Assayas may mean the stark steel foundary to stand for the music industry) and for the ugly quarrel between Emily and her husband, and the image of the car at down is memorable. Thereafter, a bewildering series of scenes follows, whose frenetic sequence may echo the heroine's disturbed state, but does not convey much sense of her as a person. Any emotional intensity the story might have is weakened by the frenetic switching of countries and milieux, by the movie's sheer busy-ness. Cheung handles all this well, but the result is a performance that is more interesting than involving. She's forced to spend so much time shuffling around from place to place and scene to scene that her experience loses the emotional intensity, the focus on inner experience, that it might have had if she'd been allowed to stay put. The colorful and rich mises en scène don't make up for, and in fact detract from, the homeliness of Emily's rehab story. Most of what goes on in rebuilding a life is interior and that's hard to show in a film. "Fake it till you make it" is an important recovery slogan describing the early 12-step process: but if an actress accurately reproduces the effect of "faking it" the effect is necessarily going to be chilly and artificial. Finally Maggie Cheung may be, at least in this her European/western persona, too composed and self-possessed a person to illustrate the sufferings of drug rehabilitation.

Released in Paris in September after a Cannes Festival showing where it got Maggie Cheung the Best Actress award -- perhaps more a sign of her well-deserved cult following than of anything compelling about her performance in this more plot-driven, colorful, but in many ways still detached effort from Assayas. He too, like his "muse" Maggie, has passionate admirers. demonlover won avid fans despite the fact that it self-destructs halfway through, and American aficionados will be disappointed that as Variety writer David Rooney wrote from Cannes in May, "a marginal commercial profile appears likely" for Clean in the US.

Also shown at the Toronto Film Festival.

Clean is in a mixture of French and English (like demonlover) -- this time with a dash of Cantonese Chinese. The Chinese comes in when she waitresses in a big restaurant for a while in Paris before her interview with Printemps.

Le Monde called this "un grand mélo, version rock." They mean this as a compliment. French critical response was extremely positive. On Allociné.com, only one of the major French papers is listed as giving Clean fewer than three stars. How often do viewers -- even professional ones -- decide what they think of a film before it's even been screened?

©Chris Knipp 2004

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