Clean - dir. Olivier Assayas - 2004 - France/UK/Canada
Someone over at the Internet Movie Database, a horrible source for user activity and input, has decided to throw around the word "cliché" on the subject of Clean as if it were... yes, going out of style (get it?). A drug-addicted mother has to straighten out her life before getting custody of her son. Yeah, we’ve seen it before, which always begs the question as to whether we need to see it again. No, we really don’t need to. Yet, this (or these) “reviewer” never really wants to question the intention or whether or not, with these said clichés, the film works. Olivier Assayas is a frantic director, whose films are always time-stamped with turn-of-this-century, and for me, that seems to be okay. Irma Vep and demonlover, his two best-known films, are beautiful messes in ways only the French can pull off. Clean appears to be his least ambitious and least confrontational but is certainly his most accomplished.
Clean is very much a standard melodrama. Emily’s (Maggie Cheung) lover, a fading musician, dies of a heroin overdose; their son is sent to live with his grandparents (Nick Nolte, Martha Henry) until Emily can clean up her act and somehow adopt a maternal instinct that she appears to lack. She returns to Paris, where she waits tables and attempts to find ways to get her son back, without actually having to establish stability in her own life. Where Clean’s strength lies is in Assayas’ presentation of a familiar tale. I had initially found myself uninterested in his leaving behind of the ambition of his prior films, but an appreciation for Clean functions in the same way that his other films do. The story lends itself to pre-established motifs of stylized drug sequences and/or cinema-vérité rawness, both problematic in their depictions. In cautionary tales of addition, stylized drug sequences always glamorize the lifestyle, enticing the viewer instead of repelling them. Cinema-vérité has reached a point where it no longer shows us the realness of life, but calls attention to itself as a cinematic decoration. Clean is not a medium between these two, but a longing and observant alternative. Nothing is magnified, glamorized, or exploited; Clean is level-headed and intimate, without sickening us with its closeness or getting so close as to hit the characters, or us, with the lens.
Cheung's performance, which won the Best Actress prize at Cannes, is exactly what you don’t expect it to be. This is not to say she doesn’t cry or stare pensively into the distance, because she does. The magic, however, of her performance is not because of this, but because we don’t register it as a “performance.” It’s a bit strange that my appreciation for Irma Vep and demonlover stem from Assayas’ ability to try a helluva lot harder than most contemporary filmmakers to challenge his audience. As a result, his films fail, admirably. Clean manages to benefit for the opposite reasons that made his other films so compelling, yet marks Assayas’ ability as a director who’s got a lot more going for him that his pretentious French sensibilities to provoke.