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    Queen of "Clean"

    Maggie Cheung is a trilingual whirlwind as a mother fighting heroin in Olivier Assayas' "Clean," which drags too much to do justice to its tri-continental performances.


    (Reviewed at the Hawaii International Film Festival in October 2004.)

    The 2004 Louis Vitton Hawaii International Film Festival featured 168 films from 24 countries over the course of 11 days. A stated goal of the festival is to promote cultural understanding and diversity through film. Olivier Assayas' "Clean" opened the film festival not only as a nod to honoree and jurist Maggie Cheung, but as an embodiment of this spirit of diversity. Set in Ontario, Paris, London and San Francisco and written in English, French and Cantonese, "Clean," while clearly the result of a Western production apparatus, feels very much like a film made by and for 21st century, post-nationalist globe-trotters. Despite its ambitions and successes, though, the film fails to escape the post- "new wave" aesthetic malaise that seems to have weighed so heavily on the French filmmakers for decades now.

    Written and directed by: Olivier Assayas.
    Cast: Maggie Cheung, Mary Moulds, Nick Nolte, Bˇatrice Dalle, Jeanne Balibar, Don McKellar, Martha Henry, James Johnston, James Dennis, Rˇmi Martin, Laetitia Spigarelli, David Salsedo, David Roback, Jodi Crawford, Elizabeth Densmore, Emily Haines, Kurtys Kidd, Joana Preiss, Tricky.
    Cinematography: Eric Gautier.
    Edited by: Luc Barnier.
    Music by: Brian Eno, David Roback, Tricky.
    In French, English, Cantonese with English subtitles.
    Hawaii Film Festival 2004
    • Overview

    • Baytong
    • Clean
    • In the Realm of the Unreal
    • South of the Clouds
      • Steamboy
    • Take Out
    • Tarnation

    • Official site
    "Clean" was written specifically for Cheung, and it's no surprise that her performance, and the acting in general, are the film's greatest strength. Cheung won the Best Actress award from the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of Emily Wang, the drug-addled wife of a washed-up rock star. When her husband (James Johnston) dies, Emily is sentenced to six months in prison for drug possession. Upon reentering the outside world, she seeks to establish a healthier relationship with her young son Jay (James Dennis), who has been living with his paternal grandparents (Nick Nolte, Martha Henry.) She is informed that she will not be permitted to see Jay until she makes some progress towards a more stable life, which she seeks to begin by returning to Paris, where the bulk of the movie is set.

    Much of the thrill in watching Cheung work is in the way she effortlessly moves from setting to setting, from relationship to relationship, from language to language with such transparency and ease. Over the course of the film, she speaks English, French and Cantonese with apparently equal fluency. She works as a waitress, rants at a publicist at a rock club, holds court in a posh media-industry office, records a track in a San Francisco movie studio, chases trip-hop star Tricky through the nightlife scene of Paris, eats burgers with Nolte at a diner in Canada, takes her son to the zoo. She veers from heroin stupor to emotional detachment to naked vulnerability without ever devolving into the showy histrionics so tempting for many actors, especially in a "recovery" role.

    In tailoring the script so much to showcase his lead actress, Assayas has failed to provide a tight enough narrative structure to maintain audience interest. Paradoxically, he's made this misstep in the most conventional, straightforward film of his career. The sloppiness that has marred some of his earlier efforts ("Irma Vep," "Demonlover") could be chalked up to narrative innovation, but there is no such innovation here, and despite lovely performances and some beautiful work from cinematographer Eric Gautier, the film as a whole falls flat.

    New Wave directors like Fran¨ois Truffaut and Agn¸s Varda excelled at character explorations that captured the look and feel of Paris while lovingly following protagonists through slice-of-life narratives that never quite felt complete because the story neither began nor ended with what had been captured on film. It feels as though Assayas was trying to capture a similar magic with "Clean," but it doesn't quite work and we are left instead with yet another film that is almost, but not quite, really good.

    NOVEMBER 9, 2004

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