3 stars (out of four)
Does anyone ever truly change? Can we alter our personalities by sheer force of will? Can we ever leave the past behind us? There are lots of provocative questions embedded in "Clean," Olivier Assayas'lyrical meditation on human nature--and, happily, no pat answers.
Maggie Cheung plays Emily Wang, a junkie whose long-standing addiction has addled her brain and poisoned her relationship with Lee Hauser (James Johnston), a struggling musician whose primary claim to fame is music he made a long time ago. Skipping from gig to gig and from one seedy motel to another, Emily and Lee are living a rock 'n' roll cautionary tale. One night, Lee overdoses, and Emily is arrested for possession.
After spending a few months in jail, Emily confronts an unpleasant truth: Her son Jay (James Dennis) is living with his paternal grandparents Albrecht and Rosemary (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry) and has little interest in reuniting with his long-absent mother. Emily heads to Europe to clean herself up, reconnect with old friends and make a new life for herself--and, she hopes, for Jay.
Cheung is magnificent as Emily, turning in a beautifully nuanced portrayal of a flawed, frustrating woman. Her scenes with Johnston are thick with mutual resentment; when she faces Nolte (whose performance ranks among the best of his career), she moves effortlessly between chastised child and emboldened adult. Cheung exudes such fierceness that her moments of extreme vulnerability come as a shock. It's a joy to watch the characters in this grown-up drama interact, their exchanges laced with anger and doubt, sadness and regret.
Assayas, who was married to Cheung until midway through the filming of this movie, also cast his then-wife in 1996's "Irma Vep," another journey into the dark heart of ego and artistry. Their chemistry is undeniable--and Assayas clearly understands the dramatic possibilities in Cheung's often impassive face. Nolte, whose leonine presence plays to great effect here, is a stooped giant, whose utter devotion to his wife, grandson and dead son is palpable, and whose wary, delicate, evolving friendship with Emily forms the emotional heart of this movie.
Shot in Canada and France, "Clean" is a character study that can't quite decide which character it finds most fascinating. Is it Emily, the broken woman searching for something like redemption? Or is it Albrecht, whose losses, in the past and looming in the future, stare out from his hooded eyes?
The music is another character; as befits a movie about musicians, it runs the stylistic gamut. Brian Eno turns in a typically ambient score, and Cheung, a longtime amateur songstress, delivers a couple of haunting songs.
Occasionally uneven (the first 15 minutes feel rushed and amateurish) but deeply satisfying nonetheless, "Clean" is above all a movie about making peace with uncertainty and doubt and living with the aftershocks of the choices we make. Not the easiest task, but it may be what redeems us in the end.
Directed and written by Olivier Assayas; photographed by Eric Gautier; edited by Luc Barnier; music by Brian Eno; production design by Bill Flemming and Francois-Renaud Labarthe; produced by Edouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli, Xavier Marchand and Niv Fichman. A Palm Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:51. MPAA rating: R (for drug content, language and brief nudity).
Emily Wang - Maggie Cheung
Albrecht Hauser - Nick Nolte
Elena - Beatrice Dalle
Irene Paolini - Jeanne Balibar