Junkie recovery sagas rarely come from a place of heartfelt experience—Olivier Assayas’s Clean, like virtually every major film about scag users and their long haul out of the darkness, is a movie made at a remove, and out of fascinated pity. Actors, of course, adore this road to and from perdition as tourists, from Ray Milland in The Last Weekend to Requiem for a Dream‘s sweaty troika of hopheads. But here as elsewhere, movies are a dream factory—of gorgeous hardcore addicts that rarely look any worse for wear or vitamins or skipped meals than your average Calvin Klein model. Maggie Cheung, in Clean, is her usually radiant self, despite a scary basement-barber ‘do and her character’s years of use.
Be that as it may—Assayas crafts a bitter, spot-on poison-pen sketch of the airless, stenchy subterranea of the fringe rock world, down to the bad hygiene and inveterate dream spinning, and Cheung stalks through the film’s cellars, all-night diners, cretinous fashion strokes, and nimbus of cheap ideas with a guileless awkwardness, never fitting in and aware of being loathed. When we’re introduced, her Emily Wang is already a low-level never-was—a failed post–new wave diva in England’s grimiest clubs and companion to a genuine has-been (James Johnston), the two of them caught in the perfectly rendered state of whining anxiety about scoring that eventually besets all junkies. The worm turns once Johnston’s mealymouthed lout buys the farm on some dodgy dope, and Emily does time in Canadian prison. (A visit in jail from a quietly bilious promoter played by Don McKellar is chilling, but Emily can’t register it due to the methadone she’s on.) Once out, she’s kindly kissed off by her dead boyfriend’s dad (Nick Nolte, in a masterfully grave and sympathetic performance) and attempts to reconstruct her life while weaning herself off drugs, for the sake of a son (stiff line-reader James Dennis) she may not see again.
It’s a film of frustrated meetings, humiliations, and petty struggles—working in a Parisian Chinese eatery, eating crow with successful ex-partners, hawking a demo tape made in stir, attacking an acquaintance’s medicine cabinet in a moment of emotional collapse. A woman without a country, Emily is a square peg and a lousy actress—on methadone, the effort to craft a normal conversational response is palpable; off it, the tension of being straight makes her creepy. Cheung and Assayas famously signed their divorce on the set, and the circumstances could only have added to Cheung/Emily’s fierce unlikability. Hitting the ground in his ultra-naturalistic mode, Assayas only uncages his star’s formidable smile once or twice and never demands our empathy, making Clean a uniquely pungent portrait of dependent personalities and the strain they put on the social weave. All the same and despite Cheung’s deserved Best Actress win at Cannes, the feigned intimacy with inexpressible bio-emotional conditions like addiction and detox leaves us, as it almost always does, on the outside.