Olivier Assayas’s Clean won probably the only award that mattered to its maker when his starlet and one-time wife, Maggie Cheung, took home the Best Actress croisette at Cannes ‘04. As a friend of mine glibly joked more than a year ago when leaving a film festival screening of the movie, Clean is a bit of a mess. But at the center of the storm is one of the most focused, downright obsessive examples of cine-diva deification in recent memory. The film follows, and I do mean follows (in the manner of a lapdog too awed even to hump), Cheung as she is repeatedly demeaned, victimized, vilified, and eventually tentatively rehabilitated as Emily Wang, the Courtney Love-esque wife of an aging rock icon who, in a fit of middle-aged desperation over his career’s sagging rockist rep, seemingly deliberately Ods in his hotel room. She spends time incarcerated for buying the drugs while, in the music industry, her already rotten reputation sinks even further. Rather than leer over Cheung suffering in the pen, Assayas’s script skips past that to her release and the two tried-and-true theaters of fallen woman melodrama: career and family. While in jail, Emily cuts a demo with another inmate. She shops it around France to her invariably voluptuous record execs/ex-girlfriends while also attempting to contact her parents-in-law to see her estranged (i.e. rejected) son. As it goes, when she needs to be focusing on one of the two concerns, the neglected other comes to a crisis. It’s enough to keep a poor ex-junkie on triple doses of methadone.
Clean is like Assayas’s attempt to update Josef Von Sternberg’s “dress you up in my love” films with Marlene Dietrich, only swapping out pan-Asian exoticism, square-jawed studs, and “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” for globetrotting cosmopolitanism, indie hipster refuse, and Brian Eno. You get the sense that the two divorced on the set of this film just to ramp up credibility a tad, even if the film’s spent enough time in small distributor hell to disprove that theory. (Palm Pictures has been sitting on the film’s domestic release nearly long enough for Kylie Minogue to pen an answer record to Metric’s incredibly smug “Dead Disco,” used in Clean as the prelude to a subsequently understandable suicide.) No, their divorce was for real. Maybe Cheung realized that Assayas intended on letting Nick Nolte, as her gruff but genial father-in-law, steal whole sections of the film right out from under her. (Martha Henry as Nolte’s frosty wife is almost as good, a worthy Marie Dressler figurehead to Cheung’s frail Dietrich.) Nolte’s weathered skin-formerly-known-as-sexiest-alive appeal is nearly authoritative enough to make you believe Clean‘s otherwise unforgivable non sequiturs, such as Emily’s jaw-dropping plan to appeal to him by recruiting the testimony of, um…Tricky?! Yeah, you know how those rural Canadian homesteaders are always entertaining stupid requests so long as they’re delivered in a trip-hop growl.