dir: Olivier Assayas
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Clean is a strange but oddly satisfying film. It’s strange in that there’s no clear plot, but there is a lot going on in the life of the main character Emily Wang, fantastically played by Hong Kong legend Maggie Cheung. Enough at least to keep us entertained.

This is a film that defies the genre it seems to be about: addiction and its malcontents, and derails the predictable path to redemption by offering something low key but more complicated.

Emily is portrayed at first as equal parts Courtney Love, when she still had her hooks in Kurt Cobain, and Yoko Ono as the destroyer of both the Beatles and John Lennon, eventually. That’s not a pleasant character on paper or on the screen. She has managed to attach herself leech-like to an artist, Lee Hauser (James Johnston, formerly of the band Gallon Drunk and more recently of the Bad Seeds), and brought him down to her level by sharing the depths of her addiction with him.

Anyone that still cares about washed-up Lee hates Emily and what they see as the damage she has visited upon him, but it’s not like Lee’s going to be around for that long anyway.

After scoring for the night, and arguing, Emily leaves Lee alone with a sizable quantity of the hard stuff. The next day he’s being zipped up in one of those black bags, and she’s on the way to jail for the next six months of her life.

All of this transpires in the Canadian city of Hamilton, which is made to look like an industrial hellhole, which I’m sure it’s not. The story doesn’t stay in Canada for long as events and characters flit about the place on the way to discovering if Emily can really get her shit together for a good number of reasons.

You see, she and Lee have a child, Jay (James Dennis), who they effectively abandoned with Lee’s parents because, as everybody knows, kids are a real drag when all you want to do is score a sweet record deal and get wasted all the time. The little bastards are just SO high maintenance.

But now that Emily has lost her meal ticket, has been bankrupted by trouble with the law, and is struggling to get straight, or clean, for that matter, her thoughts turn to the son she barely knows still living in Canada with his grandparents.

The grandparents themselves haven’t had much to do with Emily since Lee’s death, especially since they blame her for his overdose. But granddad Albrecht (Nick Nolte) at least doesn’t seem to hate Emily. When his wife develops health problems, he starts wondering about whether Emily will be able to look after herself and, eventually, Jay, since the grands won’t be around forever.

Emily’s life becomes an ongoing struggle which the rest of us who have never been addicted to anything can still relate to. Everything that comes along seems to fall apart. Reduced to poverty, she takes menial jobs and relies on the kindness of friends and family to get by. Of course, the friends have dried up and the extended family have no tolerance for her wicked ways. Moving back to Paris, where she grew up, seems like a faltering step on her way back to a liveable life.

Her one remaining friend Elena (Beatrice Dalle) is one of the few not to judge her and seems happy to help out no matter what. From the looks of the character, and Dalle herself, who is no stranger to addiction, it seems to be a path she is familiar with.

Let’s just say apropos of nothing that the star of Betty Blue, whilst looking fabulous, looks more tired than a working girl after the navy has been in town.

The struggle with smack seems easy enough, in that Emily decides she permanently needs to get off the stuff, whether it’s smack or methadone, if she’s ever going to see Jay again. But once off it, and confronted with the low-level humiliations and set backs that the rest of us know too well, boredom and depression keep her on the look out for substitutes to get her through the days and nights.

We can’t tell from early on whether the path to redemption is actually going to happen for Emily. Since this film is more of a character study than anything else, the character that the story and the viewer studies isn’t guaranteed the shining light at the end of the tunnel that these stories usually guarantee.

She’s not an easy character to like, or sympathise with, but she is fascinating. I can’t think of a bad performance by Maggie Cheung in all the years that I’ve been watching her films (despite some of the excruciating films she’s been in), and this is certainly on of her most complex and best, for which she received the Best Actress prize at Cannes.

The acting throughout is reasonable, with Nolte being strong as well, but really, it’s all about Emily. The script doles out information about Emily in such ways that it is hard to develop a complete picture of who she is, but we see her in enough situations, some quite bizarre at that, to develop a working idea of where she’s coming from and where she’s probably going.

It almost seems like Emily’s not going to get there. In the way that seems all too common in the lives of some people, there always seems to be something going wrong or someone always going against them to be used as an excuse for not trying or not giving something a chance. As the obstacles pile up, it seems a given than Emily is as much to blame for her circumstances as the outside world is for making it so hard for the poor little diddums.

You know the kind of people I mean. They make appointments with you to come over or meet up, or to give you the money they owe you, and something always arises. Usually it’s traffic related, as in something went wrong with the bus or train, or the car battery was flat, or someone stole their car. And the money? Well, they were going to pay you back, but they ran into someone they hadn’t seen for ages, and they went to a pub for a few drinks, and then the next thing you know four days had passed, and they’re sure someone stole money from their wallet at one point, and they’re really sorry, and they’ll make it up to you, and anyway, they were just feeling down that day, and who are you to make them feel bad about it anyway?

It’s not confined solely to addicts of any stripe or flavour, but it’s a fairly consistent personality type that lends itself to that kind of narcissistic self-indulgence and lack of regard for the world at large and the feelings of others that many of us know and love. Though Emily is a far more pleasant example of that, the annoying characteristics are still strongly there.

They are people, too, as needing of love and support as anyone else. They just make it bloody hard sometimes, is all.

The question we ask ourselves is whether people can change. At one point an embittered character states categorically that people don’t change. Another character, later on, believes people can change. Can Emily change? Does she have enough incentive and will power to change? Will it be enough to keep her on track?
Though this well-crafted film ends in an open-ended way, deliberately ambiguous, I like to think that Emily does make a decent go of it. The mark of a decent film is that it gets you to care about the characters involved, and I certainly grew to care about Emily and Jay’s fate.

The director Olivier Assayas, who was married to Maggie Cheung when this was made (they have subsequently divorced), crafts this film around his wife, patiently revealing the elements of her character and her life in a specific but universal way.
But there’s no doubt that the film is still a strange and almost sporadically inventive experience.

Because of the emphasis on Lee’s music business cred, the actual contemporary music scene gets multiple nods, not least of which is Emily’s attempts to enlist singer Tricky’s help in getting access to her son, or even the soundtrack and onscreen involvement of Dave Roback from Mazzy Star. The latter’s involvement leads to an amazing scene where Maggie essentially imitates the breathy, languid tones of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval in a beautiful scene that encapsulates so much more than this review could ever hope to explain.

I very much enjoyed this film, probably more than most people would, but then again, putting Mazzy Star and Maggie Cheung together in any context is likely to make me lose my critical faculties. This is not a film that is easy to enjoy, but it was, for me at least, a rewarding one.

7 times the siren’s call of the needle has never done much for me, but the incessant yelling of the demon drink has done the trick out of 10.

“You killed my father” - he doesn’t follow that up with “Prepare to die”, but maybe he should have, Clean.