There was an article in the November 14, 2004 issue of The New York Times Magazine
that posed the question: “Why Isn’t Maggie Cheung a Hollywood Star?” She is one of the
biggest celebrities in Hong Kong where she has won numerous awards and starred in over
70 motion pictures including CENTER STAGE (1992), ASHES OF TIME (1994), IRMA VEP
(1996) and IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE (2000). She famously married her IRMA VEP director,
Olivier Assayas, in 1998 and just as famously signed the divorce papers while the pair was
shooting CLEAN. Assayas specifically wrote the leading role of Emily Wang in that movie for
his then-wife. The part won her the Best Actress award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and
was featured at the 2005 Rendez-vous with French Cinema at Lincoln Center and then … well,
the film seemed to get lost. Now nearly two years after Cheung won the Cannes prize, CLEAN
finally makes its theatrical release.
Whatever the reasons for the hold up in release, CLEAN is well worth seeing for Cheung’s
terrific performance (as well as for co-star Nick Nolte’s sterling work). The story focuses on
Emily, a former host of an MTV-like network who enjoyed a brief career as a singer. She
has devoted her life to her husband Lee Hauser (James Johnston), a faded rock star attempting
a comeback. Their lives have become a whirlwind of hustling for work, spats, and shooting up –
with heroin the current drug of choice. One evening while in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, Emily
buys an impure batch and passes it on to Lee but when they quarrel, she leaves him and goes
on a solo bender. Lee dies and Emily faces a six-month jail term in Canada for possession.
Caught up in the drama is their son Jay (James Dennis). The boy had been consigned
to his paternal grandparents Albrecht and Rosemary (Nolte and Canadian actress Martha
Henry). Rosemary holds Emily responsible for Lee’s death, so she’s not exactly empathetic
toward Emily’s desire to reform. Albrecht, on the other hand, realizes that not only are he and
his wife getting on in years, but that a child needs his mother, even if she may have been
something of a screw-up in the past.
The film, mostly set in Paris, with side trips to London and Canada, revolves around her
efforts to overcome her addiction. The film, like most of Assayas’ work, meanders a bit,
particularly in subplots involving a former female lover of Emily’s (Jeanne Balibar) and a sojourn
while Emily works in a relative's restaurant. The film's heart, though, is her desire to reunite with
her child, and whenever CLEAN concentrates on that, it is engrossing.
Both Cheung and Nolte offer such strong characterizations, though, that the weaknesses
of the film can be overlooked. Nolte, who has had his own well-publicized struggles with
addiction, is quite moving as Albrecht. By placing his trust in Emily, even though it may not be
fully warranted, he keys the audience’s sympathy to her plight.
I’ve heard comment from some of my fellow reviewers that the film almost glamorizes
heroin addiction or that Cheung looks too good and too attractive to pass for an addict. They
perhaps have forgotten the period when “heroin chic” was in vogue. Cheung rewards Assayas’
faith in her by delivering a masterful performance. She is perhaps one of the best actresses
working in film today, and her award at Cannes was more than deserved for her rich, textured
acting. Anyone who desires to see great screen acting should see CLEAN.
MPAA Rating: R for drug content, language and brief nudity
Running time: 110 min
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.