Sunday 19 August 2007

Clean (2004) Olivier Assayas

This one was always going to be interesting. I firmly believe that Maggie Cheung is one of the most powerfully versatile actresses working in the industry today. I could reel off a slew of films in which I felt her performance deserved the highest accolades, and while she's won no end of top flight awards in the east from the Golden Horse Awards or the Hong Kong Film Awards, it took this long in her career to gain real notice in the west. She won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for this one.

She made this for her ex-husband, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Now I've seen a couple of his films and I'm really interested to see how this one turns out from his perspective too. Irma Vep was made before they were married and it was a fascinating film, though not all it could be. Demonlover was made after they divorced, and while it had eastern connections Cheung wasn't involved. It appears on the list of 100 great French films compiled by The Times, but I thought it was highly disappointing and didn't make sense. This one has garnered huge acclaim all round and it's shot in three languages: English, French and Cantonese. It should be very interesting indeed.

Maggie plays Emily Wang, the wife of aging rocker Lee Hauser, played by James Johnston from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. She appears to be something of Yoko Ono, bringing her husband down, but it's deeper than that. It looks like really everyone was bringing everyone down, including Hauser himself, and she merely didn't help any with her drug problem. Anyway, Hauser overdoses on heroin in a motel room and she is sent up for six months. She's put on methadone to help her off her own addiction but has a long struggle to get clean, moving from Canada to Paris, where she used to host a cable show.

Also in Canada is her son Jay, who has been brought up by his grandparents, Lee's parents, while Lee and Emily travel around trying to rekindle his career and unable to function as parents in the slightest. Emily wants to be with her son and gradually comes to the realisation that she has to be completely clean and get her life in shape first. We follow her through that journey until she can work with father-in-law Albrecht, played by Nick Nolte, who is a grizzled old Canadian with plenty of insight and decency.

Everything I didn't like about Demonlover is gone here. It all makes sense, very clear sense and it's focused without ever being obvious. Assayas keeps us thinking all the way through, wondering where it's going and where it will end up. Cheung is brilliant, as I'd expect, and with huge depth to her role. but Nolte surprised me with how powerful his sensitivity is. I've seen him in enough movies as a believable tough guy and he's tough here too but in a very different way. He's a good and caring man, though he's no saint, and he's surprisingly believable.

It's the script that surprised me most though. In Demonlover Olivier Assayas didn't make sense to me at all. I felt that he was trying to be extreme and abstract at the same time but didn't have the material to back any of it up. It ended up in my eyes as a mess that didn't make sense. Here he shines, both as a writer and as a director. His script is deep, really deep, but works on the surface too. His direction is deliberately paced and restrained but always interesting. Like a few films I've seen lately, this is one to come back to, but not to find an understanding or just to see if it holds up on a second viewing, more to peel back another couple of layers and immerse myself in it. Very impressive indeed.

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