Published Mar 01, 2005Ambivalence is surrounding Assayas's most recent outtakes, with his last film, Demonlover (2002), garnering lukewarm praise for its attempts at deconstructing the world of cyber-anime and corporate subterfuge (despite all the fuss about the Sonic Youth soundtrack). Clean sees Assayas returning to an old muse, Maggie Cheung, who played herself in Irma Vep (1996).
Lee Hauser (played by bad seed James Johnston) is a washed-out musician from the '80s, and a heroine addict, nervously aware that his latest opus is amateurish indulgence rather than praiseworthy musicianship. His partner, Emily Wang (Cheung), is in similar straits: an MTV-like icon of the '80s, and a vocalist with dubious talent and a drug habit to rival her lover's, they make a predictably volatile combination. When Lee dies of an overdose after a fight with Emily, she is arrested for drug possession and incarcerated for six months. During this period, their son Jay is placed under the custody of Lee's parents Albrecht and Rosemary (played by a gravely-voiced and understated Nick Nolte and Martha Henry), and the narrative essentially twists through Emily's rehabilitation and subsequent attempts to regain her role as the caretaker of her son.
As the title obviously suggests, Emily's journey towards going "clean" operates on several levels. It is primarily freedom from addiction and as its corollary, a chance to start a new life where her creative trajectory may be realised. That life is shot in watery and warm-coloured fragments, with each vignette fading out on an uncertain note as she goes from one city to the next plying her connections for jobs and stability.
While this uncertainty in narrative is commendable, there is an irony in Assayas's choice to name the film Clean. The allure that surrounded Cheung in Irma Vep continues here Assayas portrays his protagonist in such a pristine and beautified manner that her transition from druggie rock star girlfriend to rehabilitated mom is negligible at best. This is not quite Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia (1995), a film infinitely more raw and scathing in its rendering of failed rock'n'roll dreams and emotional trauma. Nor are the wooden cameos from Tricky and David Roback worthy additions.
Cheung, as her work in Hong Kong cinema testifies, is a remarkable actress. But her attempts here fail to register anything more than what has become a leaden truism. Namely, that she is arresting to watch onscreen and smoulderingly beautiful. (TVA)