I suffer from a rare condition that compels me to see any movie in which Maggie Cheung appears. Thankfully I still retain full possession of my faculties: I’m aware that they can’t all be In the Mood For Love or The Heroic Trio. Taking also into account that Clean is yet another offering in a relatively joyless genre, the junky rehabilitation paean, I wasn’t hoping for much. Just like the movie itself, I’m afraid there will be no surprise twists forthcoming.
Emily Wang, we are told by nearly everyone, is a mess. Her habit is sinking her husband’s last chance to make his mark as a musician and in addition, or because of it, she’s nearly universally loathed by everyone who knows her. When I say we are told this, I mean it literally. The impression that she is a train wreck of a human being is voiced again and again by one character after another. The problem is that when we watch her finally carrying through on a resolution to go straight, she doesn’t come off as nearly as monstrous as we were led to expect. Doped up and attempting to make a go as a waitress, she goes face down in the middle of the restaurant. When confronted by the management, there are no histrionics or tantrums. She merely argues until she sees there’s no chance she’ll retain her job and hits the road.
Indeed Olivier Assayas seems to have some deep aversion to drama. Scenes end just at the moment when they seem to be getting interesting, as when Emily passes out in the bathroom of a woman who has been aggressively flirting with her. What happens next? The next scene happens (and on a side note, what’s with the director’s representation of lesbians as something akin to naughty vampires? Is it really necessary to present the same scenario from Irma Vep yet again, with the same school boy reaction to the implications, replete in Vep with the participants giggling at the idea?). Clean is just that, incurious about the realities inherent in its premise. What about this woman she barely knows finding Emily unconscious, possibly from an overdose, in her bathroom surrounded by pills rifled from her medicine cabinet? The stomach churning discovery is skipped over.
One thing Assayas does love is the glamor of performance, and he trains the camera lovingly on Tricky during a show, zooming in to catch every anguished expression as the artist twists the microphone in his fists. You might think that Assayas would exploit this to show just how alluring the world is that Emily is trying to leave behind. But actually, she longs to return to it: she has no intention of living life as (gasp!) a common retail worker. She even gambles the one thing that is claimed to be her sole reason for going clean, access to her son, by attempting to skip town and attend a recording session. She does not have a story arc so much as she simply has a schedule to keep, and we get to tag along with her like a day with Tyra Banks.
I’ll give him this, Assayas introduces us to the most likable junky that I’ve ever met on screen or in person. Without the testimonials of other characters about Emily’s destructive nature, it would be impossible to believe that everyone who met her wouldn’t be instantly charmed by her. Perhaps Assayas should have filmed a prequel and thrown away this script, which would have been much more interesting to watch and would have really displayed the actress’ abilities to the full. The sole bright spot in the film is Nick Nolte’s part as Emily’s father-in-law. The word “nuanced” gets thrown around at times like these because it’s so hard to articulate greatness, but the character as written and as embodied by Nolte is so fascinating to watch, that like Heath Ledger’s Joker, you’ll miss him whenever he’s not onscreen. Each time he prepares to speak, his face gets a world weary look as though he’s both summoning up every ounce of patience and understanding he can muster, and calculating the potential response of Emily like a chess player thinking two or three moves ahead. Although struggling with a crushing amount of personal tragedy, betrayals and multiplying responsibility, he tries to do right by everyone, somehow. He takes chances, even on the happiness of those most dear to him, despite having no reason to believe his trust will be rewarded. And yet he is fiercely protective and when we first see him he makes an irrational gesture that is frightening in its implications. Reward your viewing of the film by convincing yourself that this is his story.