There’s a sequence in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) in which Maggie Cheung, playing a wide-eyed and generally passive version of herself, gets to go haywire: A woozy handheld camera watches as she stalks through her unmade hotel room, seemingly possessed by the Sonic Youth rumble on the soundtrack. Boiling over with frustrated energy and guitar feedback, Cheung slinks out for a miniature crime spree, transforming into the wraithlike character she plays in Irma Vep’s film-within-a-film.
That scene could be a prequel to Assayas’ Clean (Palm Pictures), where Cheung portrays a character who has lived her share of rock ’n’ roll indulgence and is now toughing out fame’s long hangover.
The film may establish the specifics of its plot with some baldly expositional dialogue—Lee (real-life musician James Johnston) is a has-been star scrounging for a new record deal; Cheung’s Emily is his pushy lover—but it paints the sex-and-drugs backdrop with startling ease. In a few close-ups of Metric singer Emily Haines onstage, Assayas bottles more pure rock eros than Michael Winterbottom got in his entire art-porn flick 9 Songs. Minutes later, three dangerously gorgeous images evoke a heroin habit: After shooting up in a parked car, Cheung’s head rolls back, her hand loses grip of the needle, and the camera cuts to a long shot of the car, as a refinery on the horizon erupts into the night sky with slow red flame.
The next morning, the ride is over. Lee has died of an overdose; Emily is arrested for possession. She spends six months in jail and loses the right to visit their son Jay, who has been living with Lee’s parents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). Lee’s manager capitalizes on his death with some posthumous record deals, but the money barely covers the debts and lawyers’ fees. Emily goes home to Paris, intending to piece together a more grounded life.
Her journey to recovery is mundane and episodic, divided between humbly pragmatic compromises (taking jobs in her uncle’s restaurant and at a low-end department store) and somewhat deluded attempts to reconnect with her old demimonde. The latter episodes give Assayas an excuse to indulge his curiosity (introduced in earlier films) about glamorous lesbians, but they also produce one of the film’s most poignant moments—as Emily tries and fails to enlist Tricky, one of Lee’s musician buddies, to help convince the family to let her see Jay.
If Emily’s newfound maternal instinct isn’t sold to the extent we expect, she’s still a much fuller character than Cheung was given to play in Irma Vep. Assayas wants to get beyond the actress’s familiar screen persona, where she is known mainly as second banana to Jackie Chan or as the beautifully opaque star of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. He gives her a convincingly abrasive personality and also strips away some of her physical veneer. Emily is sexy, but with ratty hair and less makeup than usual. Assayas and Cheung were married for a few years, and Clean feels like the parting gift in what was reportedly an amicable divorce.
But after the movie ends, it is not Cheung’s, but Nick Nolte’s performance that lingers in the air. It may take a foreign filmmaker to see within this troubled actor the solidity of character projected here. A man who not only claims to believe in forgiveness, but is willing to risk being proved wrong, his moral sense runs as deep as that famously weathered voice. When faced with a loved one behaving selfishly, Nolte calmly but authoritatively suggests an alternative; it may seem unlikely for an actor with so many morally compromised characters on his résumé, but as film fathers go, Nolte’s Albrecht approaches Atticus Finch’s league.
The film stumbles a bit toward the end as it did in the beginning—this time with some clichés about flawed mothers and redemption-bound celebrity burnouts. (True to the Behind the Music template, the sober Emily has hopes of recording an album of her own songs.) Still, it’s a marked improvement over the ambitious but unsatisfying Demonlover (2002), an S&M techno-thriller that tried to deconstruct Internet pornography. In Clean, Assayas returns to his comfort zone—the world of appealing young people with interestingly chaotic lives—and views it through the eyes of a woman who doesn’t belong there anymore.