Washington City Paper | June 12, 2006
In 1994, PolyGram funded a series of French films that required two ingredients: a story about adolescence and a scene that used something from the music company’s back catalog. The only one of those movies to get a commercial release in the United States was André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds, but the one that did best by the company was Olivier Assayas’ Cold Water, a clear-eyed observation of teenage anomie that includes a late-night outdoor-party scene with a late-’60s/early-’70s rock soundtrack. It was spellbinding and disheartening in the same instant.

Assayas has a good ear, and most of his subsequent films have included scenes in which characters are gripped by musical elation. He’s hardly the first continental director to do pop music—Jean-Luc Godard included a Françoise Hardy type in Masculine Feminine, and Wim Wenders moved from a Kinks fixation to collaborating with Ry Cooder, Nick Cave, and U2—but Assayas does it better than most. So it doesn’t seem at all forced when his latest film, Clean, opens with the arrival of a burned-out rocker and his longtime girlfriend at an Ontario club where Metric is onstage and proceeds to spend time backstage in Paris with Tricky and in a San Francisco studio with Mazzy Star’s David Roback.

Both Lee (James Johnston) and Emily (Maggie Cheung) are junkies, although Lee’s Toronto music-biz friend Vernon (actor-director Don McKellar) tends to put most of the blame for their condition on the latter. Lee takes a fatal fix in a motel room while Emily, in a hack-job haircut, nods out in a car parked some miles away. Weeks later, Vernon arrives at the jail where she’s serving time for possession to detail the post-prison he’s arranged for her—and to vow never to see her again. There is one unsettled matter, however: While the couple struggled to rebuild Lee’s career, they relinquished their young son, Jay (James Dennis), to Lee’s parents, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry), who live near Vancouver. Emily wants another chance with Jay, but Rosemary won’t hear of it.

Emily and Lee lived in London, but before that Emily was in Paris, the city to which she returns to kick her addiction, earn some money, and perhaps create the sort of stable life that would allow her to reclaim her son. Once a French cable-TV cult star, Emily is a needy sort whose natural impatience is only magnified by narcotic cravings. She can’t hold a job as a waitress in an uncle’s Chinese restaurant, begs for a comeback with cable exec (and former lover) Irène (Jeanne Balibar), and settles for a gig selling clothes in a boutique. Meanwhile, she tries to pursue a recording contract for herself and keep connections open with the gruffly sympathetic Albrecht, who suspects that he and Rosemary won’t live long enough to raise their grandson. When Lee’s parents travel to London to negotiate the details of their dead son’s reissue campaign, Albrecht secretly gives Emily a tryout as Jay’s mom.

Assayas scripts his own films, but that’s not because he’s a stickler for storytelling. Like most of his work, Clean relies more on texture, mood, and allusiveness than narrative propulsion. The filmmaker is particularly unconcerned with the boffo ending, tending instead to close with a gentle epiphany or an open-ended nonresolution. Cheung won the best-actress award for this vivid if uningratiating role at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival—and rightly so. Yet the performer stays cool and distant. She’s not quite as iconically remote as she was in such Wong Kar-wai films as In the Mood for Love, although Assayas generally avoids powerful dramatic moments and sudden psychological storms, preferring deep but well-guarded passion. The director and his leading lady (who met on his 1996 Irma Vep) finalized their divorce while making Clean, which surely added to Emily’s aura of disappointment and loss, but there’s no sense that Cheung is being baited or exploited.

For viewers who aren’t shackled to the three-act drama, the sensual motion of Eric Gautier’s camera and the wealth of locations—from belching Canadian mills to Parisian back streets—are enough to carry Clean. The film isn’t all image, however. Although not so conspicuously essayistic as Godard, Assayas has a lot on his mind, from the state of French cinema (a subject he began to explore in Irma Vep) to the globalization of culture. The director has some fun with the pop machine—one early line is “they don’t give a shit at DreamWorks”—but is altogether serious about how the promise of new technology has quickly faded. “The heyday of cable is over,” announces one of Emily’s former fans, correctly predicting that Irène will not offer her a place in an industry that’s changed dramatically since a golden age that couldn’t have been more than 15 years ago.

Like Assayas’ 2002 Demonlover, which surveyed anime, porn, and the Internet from Paris to Tokyo to a maybe–Los Angeles, Clean is a self-consciously globe-trotting movie, with a story that makes a point of going wherever international co-production funds can take it. The second of three Assayas efforts to sport an English-language title (counting the upcoming Boarding Gate), the film observes a network of commodities—music, drugs, images—that have no borders. It’s the story of a fractured family that takes no comfort from being set in a world that is increasingly unified.

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