The impressive fluidity of Olivier Assayas’s Clean, which is much indebted to the right-hand-in-glove fit of DP Eric Gautier and how he seems to catch actors on the intimate fly even when they’re sitting still, makes the film appear more naturalistic than it really is. Operating in a strangely agreeable area between highly plot-driven family drama and semi-plotless observation, Clean defamiliarizes a host of contemporary clichés: rock-and-roll lifestyle follies, junkie blues, the uneasy road to recovery, and child-custody issues.
One false move and the movie would be plunged into some Sid & Nancy-cum-Kramer vs. Kramer morass of needlepoint bathos. But Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte not only give two beautifully modulated performances here, they also serve as emotional compass points—there’s something very exact and indicative about how they locate inchoate feelings and make them resonant, palpable. Nobody in movies today can say lines like “He’s been faithful to their friendship” with the absolute simplicity and believability of Nolte here.
Characteristically, Assayas sidesteps the obstacles presented by the schematic setup with his small-scale immersion in human ricochets, everyday atomization, and attentively restrained poignancy. But what really makes the film click is a more basic throwback of a conceptual gambit: having a difficult, frequently unsympathetic figure portrayed by an actor who has great audience rapport and maintains a huge reserve of goodwill. As the strung-out walking disaster area Emily, Cheung stays well inside the woman’s downcast frame of mind, making no concessions to waifish glamour or latent virtuousness. But still, she has an aura of likeability that can’t be dissipated no matter how immersed she is in little miseries and petty bitchiness.
After the OD of Emily’s longtime boyfriend (a fading rock star given the name Lee Hauser) and her arrest for heroin possession, the story turns toward her pursuit of a responsible life after years of rock-parasite status. The couple’s son is being cared for by the boy’s Canadian grandparents, and when she gets out of jail, Emily is contacted by the grandfather, Albrecht (Nolte). With sincere best-for-all-concerned consideration, he asks her to bow out of the parental picture. Of course she eventually wants to see her son again, and a bit more unexpectedly, Albrecht agrees and arranges an awkward, crucial reunion.
Clean is loaded with incidents, complications, coincidences, and expectation-reversals. Yet the film is just as rooted in cityscapes (the forlorn industrial parkways of Hamilton, Canada, and the nocturnal buzz of Paris) and well-delineated urban interiors (for a short time, Emily works in a sprawling, impersonal Chinese restaurant and not so surreptitiously medicates herself). It also gleans a lot from an ensemble of supporting actors you wouldn’t mind seeing become a floating stock company: a ravishingly ravaged Béatrice Dalle, Don McKellar, Jeanne Balibar, and Rémi Martin, for starters. Shooting pool, Dalle’s spontaneous choreography (with dangling cigarette, cue, drink, and hair for prop partners) strikes a perfect chord—when is Assayas going to break down and make the updated A Woman Is a Woman/It’s Always Fair Weather nouvelle-Rivette musical he must have in him?
The one-two combination of Nolte’s essential generosity and decency as an actor with Cheung’s innate levelheadedness nicely gets around the customary trumped-up “conflict” movies over-rely on. And if levelheadedness seems out of character for a junkie, Clean reminds you that sometimes the levelheaded are the ones who go out of their way to lose themselves in disorder. The only minor problem the movie has is with the superfluousness of the Lee Hauser subplot and the flat-footed stab at rock pseudo-authenticity—really, do rockers backstage talk exclusively in carefully delineated plot points? All that stuff about the cover of Mojo and the cameo insertion of “this fellow Tricky” (as Albrecht deferentially refers to him) has a routine, warmed-over quality that gives off more purple haze than credible light.
The reticent loveliness of the film is encapsulated in the chance encounter between Emily and Albrecht, when she is trying to spirit her son away to California. Instead of confrontational fireworks, there is understanding on Albrecht’s part, and in a gesture of surpassing kindness and moral intelligence, he strikes a sensible compromise with her. In that reconciliatory moment, when her face breaks into an openly grateful, almost childlike smile, Clean rises into the ether on the wings of Brian Eno’s “Taking Tiger Mountain.” I only wished the song had been allowed to play on and build and let the emotional release of the sequence take hold. Assayas cuts away from this gathering sense of familial communion-connection to Emily in a San Francisco recording studio, launching into a barely passable drone that evokes a few too many wispy, trippy Mazzy Star-lets: the world may be waiting for the sunrise, but I’m not as convinced it needs another bargain-basement-tape Nico.