While Olivier Assayas’ “Clean” has the alluring visual texture of his best work and is far more linear and accessible than 2002’s convoluted “Demonlover,” this story of a rock widow struggling to kick drugs and win back the affection of her estranged son is dramatically pallid and unconvincing. Despite being written for her, the director’s “Irma Vep” muse Maggie Cheung seems oddly miscast here and is ill-served by an emotionally underpowered screenplay that rarely gets beneath the surface of the character’s problems. Assayas loyalists in the critical corps inevitably will get behind his 10th feature, but a marginal commercial profile appears likely.
Like “Demonlover,” this more conventional new drama is again in English and French — with a smattering of Cantonese — and is set and shot between Canada, Paris, London and San Francisco. Opening drops in on some intense friction between faded ’80s rock star Lee Hauser (James Johnson) and his wife Emily (Cheung) in Hamilton, Canada, as they thrash out seemingly well-worn conflicts stemming from his stalled career and their mutual drug dependency.
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The music press and Lee’s associates in the business tend to pin his downfall on Emily’s addiction, a view consolidated when Lee dies of a heroin overdose and Emily is imprisoned for possession. The couple’s young son Jay (James Dennis) lives with Lee’s parents Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry) in Vancouver. When Emily is released after six months still strung out on methadone, she meets Albrecht and agrees to stay away from Jay, instead returning to Paris to pull her life together.
Back in France, Emily gets a waitressing job in her uncle’s Chinese restaurant and a room in the house of her loyal friend Elena (Beatrice Dalle). But despite minor celebrity status from a veejay stint in the early days of French cable, she finds that world changed and unwelcoming. Her old boss and former lover Irene (Jeanne Balibar) is insincere and self-absorbed, too caught up with girlfriend problems to help Emily find work. And a demo tape of songs Emily recorded in prison sparks little interest. But she finds the backbone to tear up her methadone prescription and stay clean, slowly focusing on salvaging her relationship with her son.
A window opens toward that reconnection when Jay is taken by his grandparents to London, where Rosemary is to undergo treatment for a terminal illness. Aware that he’s unable to take care of the boy himself, Albrecht goes against his wife’s wishes and takes Jay to Paris for a weekend with his mother, who’s still popping painkillers and struggling with emotional uncertainty over her choices.
While the French section is more robust than the stilted drama of the Canadian opening, Assayas’ undernourished screenplay merely states the conflicts in Emily’s life and then repeats them without any real depth of exploration. In the same way the film suffers from superficial occupancy of the music and drug scenes, Cheung never inhabits her character with much conviction and too often seems under-rehearsed.
Providing a voice of reason and compassion in the drama, Albrecht is the vehicle for a somewhat automatic note of hope and healing in the final stretch. But Nolte’s understated work overcomes the script’s fragile construction. The actor’s weathered appearance and the weight of loss and sadness being carried by the character make his the most emotionally resonant performance in the otherwise low-wattage film.
Though less ravishing than his lensing of Cannes competition stablemate “The Motorcycle Diaries,” d.p. Eric Gautier’s widescreen camerawork impresses with its sinuous grace, its constant, urgent mobility and striking depth of field, particularly in the crowded Paris environments and in a dynamically shot stage performance by singer Emily Haines and rock band Metric in the opening scenes. Keen use is made of compositions by ambient music maestro Brian Eno.