There is one scene in Clean that sticks out to me. A supremely-groggy Nick Nolte
sits at a small fast food joint and gets a small salad and water while Maggie Cheung
(playing his widowed daughter-in-law) goes up to the counter and orders a monster burger, french fries, and onion rings with a large coke. Itís her first real meal since getting out of prison and itís his first meal with her for god knows how long. Thereís a lot of symbolism, even though it's simple, being used in the scene, and it gives depth to a complicated relationship (everyone thinks she Courtney-Loved her rocker boyfriend). How did director Olivier Assayas
, a seasoned pro, allow this to be one of the scant few scenes that hold any real fascination? Furthermore, how did he allow himself to write something so damn drab and insipid?
Emily (Cheung) spends the first 15 minutes of the film being the annoying Yoko to Lee (Nick Cave dead ringer and cohort James Johnston), an aging rocker trying to get a deal for his anthology. She gets nabbed for heroin possession just when she finds Leeís body but is saved by Leeís manager. Out of jail after a quick stint, she meets with Albrecht (Nolte), her father-in-law who has been raising her son Jay with his wife. Itís apparent to all involved (besides Jay) that Emily needs to get clean, get a job, and take custody of her child. The journey is held up by a brief stint in Paris where she still takes pills, gets fired from a job and finally begins to detox after her musician friend Tricky (playing himself) ignores her requests for help with the custody issue. Article continues below
Assayas has never been one for normal (if you call Demonlover or Irma Vep normal, I know the number of a good clinic). So then, why is Clean just that? Itís not a terrible film because it doesnít really have an agenda of any sort. Cheungís performance isn't bad by any means, but she never really tries anything. She makes admirable decisions as far as movement goes but she just reads most of the lines. Nolte fairs much better, but itís only because he's played this character before and knows how he works. Cinematographer Eric Gautier does some really exceptional work with the landscapes of Canada and Paris, and does gnarly work with musical performances by Tricky and Metric.
In the end, the problem comes back to a very predictable, uncomplicated script that gives the actors very little to really do. We know this story backward and forward and although the film looks at it in what feels like a more realistic, underplayed style and structure. Consider it a transition film: Assayas trying to try more familiar routes to render his messages. Where Jim Jarmusch, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and David Cronenberg have all made masterful conversions, Assayas seems at a loss as to how to mix his elusive, seductive style with a more formulaic storyline. Itís an interesting film for Assayas fans and for fans of Lifetime, but it doesnít deliver the way a film like Irma Vep did. Itís a film that hasnít found what itís looking for.