Friday, January 12, 2007

Film Review #75: Clean
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte

“I’m completely in your hands,” says Albrecht Hauser (Nick Nolte), the bear-sized boat-maker from Vancouver. He’s holding up his own rough hands, palms open, as he looks down at tiny Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) on a wintry Paris street. He’s taking a huge risk: he’s going to let Emily take her son Jay – the grandson he’s raised from birth – for the weekend, even though Emily is a heroin addict in shaky recovery, even though six-year-old Jay thinks she killed his musician father Lee, even though Albrecht told his wife, hospitalized in London, that he took the boy to Scotland for the weekend.

Only minutes ago Emily bolted, overcome with her own fears about this reunion – a long tracking shot follows her running down escalators and through a dense holiday shopping crowd before she changes her mind and returns, just as frantically, to find Albrecht. “You’ll have him back by the 3:40 train on Sunday?” asks Albrecht. It’s clear by this point in Clean that few people have ever spoken to Emily with such economy and direct force of attention. Emily promises she will have the boy back on time, and of course she nearly doesn’t.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas’ Clean opens a year or so earlier, as Emily and her partner Lee (in real life, musician James Johnston, who now plays with Nick Cave’s band The Bad Seeds) land in a small unspecified industrial city during an already fatiguing tour. Their motel’s dreary. The club they’re booked in is cramped and seedy. Their tempers are frayed. They argue and Lee reminds her that he’s 42 now. Their manager and other musicians think bitchy, dope-shooting Emily is the reason Lee’s career is skidding – an opinion that persists after he fatally overdoses, Emily spends six months in prison for possession, and nearly everyone writes her off.

Wisely, Assayas skips Emily’s prison time. Instead, we see the continuing jolt of her trying to put together a very different life after. She returns to Paris, waitresses in an uncle’s Chinese restaurant, works her way through methadone and pain killers, gets some scraps of help from old music friends while others blow her off, clerks in a mall boutique, harbors hopes of reviving her own music. Emily comes to grasp that she will never see her son until she gets clean.

Clean is one of several 2006 films that address the reliably devastating topic of addicted adults and the children within their reach. Besides Off the Black (another Nolte film just released last month), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson portrays a crack-addicted teacher’s ambiguous relationship with a student who becomes his dealer (out on DVD on 2/13) and Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby features Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance as another young ex-con addict who wants her small child back (out on DVD on 1/23).

Far less acclaimed than Fleck’s and Collyer’s US-set films, Clean burns longer than both. Clean portrays the pull that both music and heroin exert, and it relies less on the drama of downfall, more on enduringly quiet scenes: the near-documentary feel of rock’n’roll road life that Assayas establishes immediately, Albrecht’s confiding to his wife that kids scare him because “they know what you’re thinking before you say it,” Emily’s fragile persistence, Jay’s confrontation with her in the Paris zoo, and the wonderful exchanges between Emily and Albrecht.

Seeing Nick Nolte as Albrecht Hauser is startling after his memorable string of alcoholic-addict roles. He was harrowing in Affliction, droll and sorrowful in The Good Thief, and he carries last month’s Off the Black. Even though Maggie Cheung won Best Actress award at Cannes for Emily and there's some Oscar-buzz now, the pivot here is Nolte’s Albrecht, an artisan model for his musician son who also crafts a sturdily sea-worthy relationship with Emily.

Assayas has worked with Maggie Cheung before (they were married briefly before making Clean), first directing her in Irma Vep (1996) and expanding her international reputation beyond Hong Kong. Set in London, Paris, Vancouver and San Francisco, Clean has opened in nineteen other countries since its 2004 Cannes premiere and prior to its limited US theatrical release in late April 2006.

The DVD, also released last April, has excellent interviews with Assayas, Cheung, Nolte, the English pop star Tricky, and the band Metric (who play themselves in the opening scenes). Real musicians play all the musician roles in Clean. A Metric members reflects, “Music is more addictive than any substance – it will justify the most destitute existence.” How Assayas works that out on-screen is worth the trip.

This review appeared in the 1/11/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a weekly DVD column reviewing recent films never released theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.