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Clean
cast: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Beatrice Dalle, Don McKellar, and James Johnston

director: Olivier Assayas

110 minutes (15) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Alasdair Stuart
Covering similar ground to Little Fish, Clean is in many ways a more ambitious film. It follows Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) across the world as she struggles to prove her worth as a singer, a mother and a human being. Taking in Canada, America and France, the story follows Maggie as she struggles with her drug habit, her ambitions and the demands placed on her as a mother.

Opening with Emily at her lowest ebb, the film follows her as she discovers her boyfriend (James Johnston) has died of an overdose, and she is arrested for possession. With her son taken away from her she's forced to try and rebuild her life with the reluctant help of her boyfriend's father (Nick Nolte).

Clean is a beautiful film to watch, its unflinching camera capturing every nuance of Emily's personality. From the preening wannabe rock-star of the opening scenes to the bitter, impatient restaurant worker of the film's later scenes, she's portrayed in a brutally honest way that works both for and against the film. Cheung was given the best actress award at the 2004 Cannes festival for her work here and it's easy to see why. She inhabits the character completely, making her emotional journey all the more effective. However, where Cheung's work is hugely impressive it's almost impossible to care about Emily. She's a tragic figure certainly but also a thoroughly arrogant and unpleasant one. Desperately fragile but extremely combative, she's a well-nuanced character but not a particularly likeable one. Whilst this changes in some of the film's later scenes, this lack of sympathy combined with the film's at-times glacial pace, makes it difficult to connect with at the best of times.

The antithesis to Emily, as well as the hook the film hangs from, is Nick Nolte as Albrecht. The father of Emily's boyfriend, Albrecht becomes the guardian of both his grandson Jay (James Dennis) and Emily's future. This is Nolte on absolutely top form, turning in a performance that's understated, compassionate yet absolutely authoritative. His love for both Jay and Emily is clear and his absolute refusal to let Emily anywhere near her son until she's more equipped to deal with him is clearly an act born of compassion for both of them. His scenes are all amongst the film's best moments and his interaction with both Emily and Jay is fascinating to see. Nolte has been known for less than subtle performances in the past but this is career-best work that goes a long way towards saving the film. Interestingly, Dennis as Jay is the other standout, balancing the anger he feels at his mother with an intelligence that's beyond his years, and an energy that's uniquely child like.

Clean is not an easy, or particularly enjoyable film to watch. Whilst it's beautifully shot and superbly acted it remains a cold, distant piece of cinema that stands in stark contrast to the earthy approach taken by Little Fish. However, if you can deal with the tone, then there are three superb performances to enjoy here, wrapped around a film which is at its strongest when it strips away its pretensions and focuses on the characters.
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