Olivier Assayas



Maggie Cheung

Nick Nolte

Béatrice Dalle

Jeanne Balibar









1 Hr., 51 Mins.

Clean May 24, 2019  

arely any time passes in Clean (2004) before its heroine, Emily (Maggie Cheung), reaches the end of her rope. The movie begins by introducing us to the latter, a popular video jockey back in the day, and her rockstar boyfriend, Lee (James Johnston), as they arrive in Hamilton, Canada for a Metric concert. Both are addicted to heroin; both have come to be looked at as nuisances by their family and remaining friends. Given the

Maggie Cheung in 2004's "Clean."


quickly established discord, it isn’t all that big a surprise to us when the next morning, after an evening spat in a motel room that leads Emily to storm out, Lee is found dead from an overdose. 


But it is to Emily, and not in the sense that such an outcome is foreign to her or that she’s distraught to find herself without Lee. It has more to do with the realization that, after years of adjusted-to chaos and growing accustomed to the saying that things will eventually work themselves out, she cannot continue living the way she has been. She’s arrested for drug possession; she then spends six months in jail. When she’s released, she finds out Lee’s parents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry) have been given full custody of her and Lee's child. Having ruminated on what she’s done, she takes it seriously when Lee’s father, Albrecht, tells her that he thinks it best she tries to cobble her life together before trying to mend her relationship with her son, Jay. She heads to Paris and goes about rehabilitating her life. She needs to get clean.


Olivier Assayas, Clean’s co-writer and director, knows the genius of Cheung, one of the great actresses of her generation. (Today, the movie, her last, is considered her swan song.) Because Assayas had previously directed her in Irma Vep (1996), an outlandish backstage comedy, and was married to her from 1998 to 2001, you sometimes wonder how different a film this might have been if there hadn’t been a profound relationship between writer and star. Clean is a sort of movie not unlike the ones made by iconic actress-director pairings like Monica Vitti and Michelangelo Antonioni or Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes: Theirs are films in which the leading actress does little more than live but we stay riveted. Their hold over us had all to do with the star’s command of the material and her director’s obvious faith in and admiration of her. Clean never moves beyond simply watching Emily pick up the pieces, but in a character study so emotionally sumptuous, such isn't a problem.


Clean doesn’t shy away from the mundane, yet it’s never tedious. Assayas and Cheung, together, convincingly portray the baby steps leading to what looks like a recovery. Emily gets a job waitressing at a high-end restaurant in Paris; she reconnects with an old colleague (Jeanne Balibar) who worked with her during her TV hostess days; she attempts to kickstart a recording career by making amends with an estranged pal with industry connections (Beatrice Dalle). Few of these developments get arcs that end on a sweet note, but they at least get Emily somewhere better than before.


She hit some more serious snags during the recuperation process. She temporarily gets addicted to methadone, initially thinking that she’ll merely use it to get off her drug of choice for good. Later, Emily finds out that Jay’s grandma told him that she was responsible for Lee’s death, which messes prospects of a cheery reunion. There’s an especially heartrending subplot involving Emily trying to get Tricky, the trip-hop artist, to help her convince Lee’s dad to let her see her son prematurely via a hastily written letter. But the rapper, who barely so much as whispers his thoughts, staying true to his brand, is only willing to shake his head. Like Albrecht, who is portrayed sympathetically by Nolte, even an outsider like Tricky can tell that Emily’s obvious affection for Jay doesn’t conflate with her being ready to reenter his life.


We stick out for Emily through all of it, which maybe has to do with our assumption that she’s trying to get better — even if the beginning of the movie portrays her as someone with whom we shouldn't sympathize. But it probably has more to do with how assured and spellbinding Cheung is in the role. She can be shaky in spots: I had a hard time during the first few scenes, for instance, believing Cheung in the guise of a chain-smoking, heroin-shooting hellion with punkish hair and a vinegary attitude. Farther down the movie, when watching Cheung sing (original music in Clean was done by Mazzy Star’s David Roback), I thought of my long-held belief that vocally untalented actors portraying musicians should never be shown belting in order to uphold the illusion. But Cheung, otherwise, is luminous. Through her performance do we get a lucid sense of not only where Emily’s at emotionally but also what’s going on under her leonine head of raven-black hair: a jumble of despair and hope, forever at odds. Emily, despite being worlds away from Cheung — the latter of whom then of course a beloved international movie star — is understood by the woman who plays her.


Clean’s final act is especially poignant — a delicate but exceptionally well-wrought cap on a film that capably but never cheaply tugs the heartstrings. It’s the stretch we and Emily have been looking forward to most: the occasion of the latter and her son reuniting. The sequence is done pretty masterfully. It begins with Emily hugging the boy a little too long, which we suspect is an extension of her trying to figure out what she’s going to say to him once they get out of the embrace. Then we watch, in real time, basically, as the two tend to the fractures bumpily. Jay is convinced that Emily is a murderess — something to which we expect the latter, given some of her past behavior, to possibly react explosively. But she instead comes down to his level, working to understand his thinking and then explaining what really happened in terms both candid and age-appropriate. They increasingly move toward a mutual understanding; they finally get to a place where Jay decides that he might want to head to San Francisco to watch his mom actualize a musical project that’s been marinating throughout the film.


I found Clean’s final shot — which sees Cheung looking out hopefully at the San Franciscan landscape on a backyard deck, the camera then sweeping outward to gaze at it itself — just right. Some have suggested it’s too visually optimistic: an indirect way of saying “everything’s fine now” in a movie that’s so far proven itself prone to claiming the opposite. But I thought it encapsulated the idea of approaching new horizons with equal amounts of faith and fear — something that the movie, for 111 minutes, captures stirringly. A-