Tuesday, June 28, 2005


Yesterday I watched the film Clean, which reunites the team behind the brilliant Irma Vep, director Olivier Assayas and lead actress Maggie Cheung. This is a film with quite a backstory. Sometime after filming Irma Vep, Assayas and Cheung got married, and he was writing this film as a present to her, but they ended up getting divorced, and while they were in the process of working out that divorce, they made this film together.

So, the film is prescient in its depiction of a woman struggling to make it on her own after her marriage falls apart, in the film, it's the death of her rock star husband that sets things in motion, and as the film goes on, she has to kick her heroin addiction, in the hopes that she will one day regain custody of her son.

What makes the film great is Maggie Cheung's performance as Emily. At the start of the film, she's a Yoko Ono type character, a woman who is blamed for her husband's musical decline. So, she is fiery and defiant, fending off criticism. But once he dies, she goes through a humbling process, we see her in jail, and even when she gets out, she's forced to give her son away and work through a series of menial jobs, all the time struggling with breaking her addiction. It's a totally different role than anything else I've seen Cheung in, that was a major reason why Assayas made the film, to give her a chance to play someone closer to herself in real life.

In most of the Asian films she's in, she plays a sort of chaste, idealized woman, regal and slightly removed from the dirty nastiness of reality. I would compare her to Nicole Kidman over here, someone who may play characters that may suffer, but always seems a bit ethereal, above normalcy. So, here, Assayas gives her a character who is inundated with problems, and unable to make things work. It's a stretch for her, but she completely pulls it off, she's utterly convincing in her role, all the more surprising considering she has to speak in three languages. I said it when I saw Irma Vep, I'll say it again, American directors are missing out on such a talent by not using her. Her English is great, and as an actress, she's one of the best in the world today. And even if you're not talking about the art, her presence would be a huge help in increasing international box office revenue.

In addition to Cheung, Nick Nolte as Albrect puts in a great performance. Most of his scenes are with a kid, but both he and the kid are great, and you really understand what he's feeling. Cinema isn't always dependent on an emotional connection, but the fact that you care about Emily, Albrecht and Jay makes the events much more meaningful. You want Emily to have her son, but at the same time, you want him to stay with Albrecht. The arrangement they work out at the end gives the film a great happy ending while staying within the bounds of realism.

Assayas' films always look good and are interestingly made; this is no exception. He uses a lot of handheld camera, with frequent jump cuts, and that does a good job of conveying Emily's mental instability. I really like the use of music, particularly the last scene.

This is the sort of film that works because it creates fully realized, sympathetic characters and then lets you follow them around as they struggle to find something more in their lives. I think that's a resonant struggle, even if you're not trying to ditch heroin, you can relate to Emily's struggle to make a better life, to improve her station in the world. The film doesn't judge the character, or become moralizing about the drugs, it's something that happened and now she has to move on. So, great performances, interesting filmmaking, emotional engagement with the characters, you've got yourself a great film right there.


Anonymous said...

I'm so envious that you saw this film. On film?

I'm looking forward to seeing it. I don't know when I'll get the chance though... Hopefully next fall. I'll get back to you again once I've seen it.

Patrick said...

I got the DVD from Hong Kong, good quality, I think it's a legitimate release, but after watching it I found it was in the wrong aspect ratio. The DVD was 1.78:1, while I believe the film is 2.35:1. I could still get most of it, but I'd like to see it on film when it finally gets released here.

Definitely check it out once it gets released though, it's top notch. And I forget to mention that Maggie Cheung sings too, quite well.

Have you seen any of Assayas' early stuff, I've seen Irma Vep and Demonlover, but nothing before that. Any of it good?

Anonymous said...

No, I haven't seen anything else. Only Irma Vep (which Josh hates, btw) and Demonlover.