Spout Mavens Disc #3: Clean (2004)

Director: Olivier Assayas // 2004 [Palm Pictures Promo Screener DVD]
Cinema 4 Rating: 7

At a certain point in Olivier Assayas' addiction meditation Clean, we are asked to accept the fact that not only would Maggie Cheung's breathy meander of a voice warrant the attention of a record producer, but that someone would ask her to fly all the way from Paris to San Francisco to record it. It's not that there isn't a sort of intriguing dreariness to the music on her demo tape; it's just hard to imagine the commercial possibilities for it. One reason it could hold such possibilities is that her character, Emily Wang, is a minor celebrity (video jockeys are all minor celebrities, no matter how famous they actually got) whose life partner just ended up on the fatal side of a heroin overdose. So, certainly there is commercial potential in that not necessarily blessed combination. Hearing her music in a movie tangentially about rock music but lacking any real fire musically, I was as lost in context regarding her music as Cheung's character is emotionally wayward within her screen life. But the moment where I go, "Ah, of course he would be interested..." is when they mention the producer in question is David Roback, the fellow from Mazzy Star. Once we hear of that particular band, everything -- the music, Emily's possible appeal to the industry, Cheung's mild voice -- is no longer to be questioned, and neither is the notion that she might indeed believe herself to have some potential. Although I don't particularly care for the music in the film (especially for the horrendous act that opens the film), the Mazzy-style music (actually written and produced by Roback for the film) chosen for the character is perfect for Cheung, and thus the scoffing attitude I had towards Emily's belief in her rumored talent was turned into mute assent; I knew it was more than just another lie Emily was telling herself.

No one lies to Emily Wang but Emily Wang. Everyone calls her an addict, which she is. Everyone, including her estranged six-year old son, says she killed his father, and, yes, she technically did. Heroin that she provided him did him in, but she purchased it, even if she maintains to everyone within earshot that she didn't. Because of her son -- currently being raised by her late partner's parents -- Emily has to struggle with more than just her own drug addiction. She has to move on; she has to regain more than just physical possession of her son, but also his love; most of all, she has to clean up her act. To do this, she has to stop lying to herself. The mad scramble to find money to purchase drugs, stabbing a needle into her veins, and losing the trust of everyone in her life seems an easier pursuit for her than simply facing up to life and its consequences. After a jail stint for possession, she trades heroin for methadone, and brings her remaining friends in on the quest for fulfillment of that curse. And when her "addicted" lifestyle keeps a hold on her -- party friends, record producers, jail companions -- even when one wishes deeply to clean up, how does one do so?

My struggle going in to Clean would be my fear that I would merely be watching The Beautiful Side of Addiction. I have been immensely taken -- physically -- with Maggie Cheung since Police Story in the mid-'80s, considering her to be one of the most lovely things on the planet, and I would be hard-pressed to accede my own denial that the thought of her as a heroin addict doesn't exactly jibe with my Idealized Version of Angelic Loveliness. Taking Ms. Cheung off the pedestal on which I have clearly seated due to her physical appearance alone -- owning up to my own inherent American Male Misogynistic Streak -- I will have to admit that her beauty actually makes the role even more difficult to pull off, and thus, makes her achievement here even more impressive. It's one thing to play the role of addict if you already look like Courtney Love run through a washing mangle -- if you always look like you are trashed, it's easier to persuade an audience that you are; it's another thing altogether if you look like you just stepped off a modeling runway (even though we know full well by this point that most models are addicts of one form or another, as a society, we remain blithely tied to the concept of outward beauty as inner perfection).

Cheung is a fireball of barely contained nervousness here -- the success comes in not showing how lost she has become, but in how normal she can seem. Her every emotion is sorrowfully conflicted: when she should stay, she wants to run; where she should immediately get away, she lingers far too long. She shrieks and practically growls and pisses away relationships and locales which can no longer serve her any purpose. She can no longer judge which people are really her friends, who is merely around because of her reputation and who is around for the chance to burn her (don't even ask about her family members in Paris; they have become convinced that she is ashamed of her Chinese heritage). She reaches out in every direction she can, hungry to find a foothold on which she may begin to lift herself out of the hole she has dug for herself, but everything ends up a cruel and ironic dead end. Cheung's outward mask may seem too strangely placid to some, given her circumstance; what I see is an ocean rife with turmoil. What we have here is an actress whose character is clearly and desperately thinking her way through her character's state of unthinking blindness to her own situation.

And yet, the key to success for this movie, and in keeping my interest in it, lies not with Cheung, but with a man who in recent years has had his own struggles with addictions of various stripes, Nick Nolte. As Albrecht Hauser, the stoic grandfather, and a man who is likely going to soon be losing his own life partner, Nolte holds the keys to Emily's future relationship with her son. He knows that she has a right to see him, and even regain custody of him, but unlike his dying wife, who sincerely believes Emily is a murderer and is blinded by this hatred, Albrecht wants to ensure that when, not if, Emily takes the rein as a parent, that she is ready to do so. He is always fair-handed with her, and even when she disappoints him, he is not a man prone to snap judgments.

There is a scene where we see Emily's son commit a robbery on the grandfather, stealing money from his coat to sneak out and buy comic books. We later see, in an extremely underplayed sequence, that Albrecht is fully aware of these small strikes of rebellion and thievery, finding them amusing with a "kids will be kids" sort of attitude, and preferring to absorb the small betrayal to keep peace in the household. He uses the same tactic on Emily, whom I assume he sees as something of a daughter herself, and instead of reprimanding her for a small indiscretion, he gives her a pair of well-weighed options, letting her figure out the path to reconciliation her way. A way that she needs to work things out.
Others may not lie to Emily, but Albrecht is the only one willing to give her what she really needs: enough trust to get her to the next step, which is faith in herself. It's a trust that many of us could do with more in our lives, and Nolte plays it so naturally and warmly, but not cloyingly (this film is certainly never cloying in the least), it's a wonder the man hasn't collected a shelf full of Oscars. Whatever his own struggles are, on screen in Clean, Nolte is perfection.

Too bad the music isn't. It works within the context of Cheung's character, and helps to serve as her grace note, but for a film based around music, it's a sorry state of affairs. Luckily, director Assayas (Cheung's ex-husband) knows full well it is the weakest part of the film, and lets the actors carry the day, an end to which Nolte and Cheung rise wonderfully.


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