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2.5 out of 4 stars

Country
France, Canada, U.K.
Language
French, English, Cantonese

Clean

**½

Directed and written

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by Olivier Assayas

Starring Maggie Cheung

and Nick Nolte

Classification: 14A

In these corporate days of safe formula flicks and rigid bottom lines, it may seem churlish to fault a film for being overambitious. But, bucking the trend, that's precisely the problem with Clean. It's not so much a movie in three acts as three movies stuffed into a single casing, and often showing the strain. I don't mean to suggest for a second that Clean is sloppy -- Olivier Assayas is far too cool and meticulous a director to ever let that happen. It's just that there's a whole lot of curved story-lines floating around elliptically in his script, and, after a while, you start to wish he'd pick one, unbend the thing, and follow it through. Sometimes, Olivier, it's just as cool to be straight.

As often happens with international co-productions -- France, Canada, U.K. in this partnership -- the setting flits about the globe like a jaded traveller burning off frequent-flier points. So, early on, prepare yourself to be plunked down amid the smokestacks of Steeltown -- yes, Hamilton, Ont., whose stygian slag heaps form a rather transparent metaphor for the state of Lee's burnt-out soul. Once a world-famous rocker, he has tumbled into the miasma of middle age, and his junkie wife, Emily (Maggie Cheung), has only accelerated the fall. Holed up in a lacklustre motel room, they argue, Emily stalks out, Lee overdoses, he dies, she's arrested for possession, serves eight months, gets released, and we're still barely 20 minutes past the opening credits. So much for movie No. 1 -- looks interesting, but for God's sake don't blink.

From there, a quick flight to Vancouver reveals to us the existence of the couple's estranged son, young Jay, who's being raised by Lee's aging parents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). Meanwhile, still hooked on methadone, Emily hops a plane in the opposite direction to Paris, where she once lived before meeting Lee and playing Yoko to his John. There, reduced to waitressing in a fast-food emporium, Emily hooks up with various old acquaintances, in the demi-monde and beyond, thereby letting movie No. 2 start in earnest. Some friends shun her, others try to help, but, squeezed as they all are into a mere middle act, it gets tough to know who's who -- and tougher to care.

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At this congested point, things are bouncing about episodically until Assayas decides to settle down to his third and final movie -- the redemption picture, which has Emily struggling to reconcile with her young son. Inevitably, this prompts another dip into those frequent-flier points, as Jay and his grandparents wing off to Europe themselves, paving the way for the climactic mother-and-child reunion. But when it comes, the dialogue in the scene sounds a bit clumsy and contrived. Although Assayas takes extreme care to back away from any hint of sentimentality, his restraint would be more admirable if he had a palatable substitute. He's like the pedant who's afraid of the cliché, but can't come up with anything better.

Of course, emotional detachment is part of Assayas's cool, and the whole movie has a certain anesthetized quality. In his defence, it's also woven into the fabric of Emily's character, whose addiction is obviously a means of keeping the big bad world at bay. As anyone can attest who saw her in Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, no actress is better than Maggie Cheung at locating exactly this tension, at conveying simultaneously both surface reserve and inner turmoil. This time, in a Western setting and a role that requires her to speak three languages, she's superb again, managing (with only minimal help from the script) to portray in Emily a woman of the world who feels at home nowhere. Behind her mask of hip, she's deeply vulnerable, yet never so weak as to betray an ounce of self-pity.

Surprisingly, perhaps, her only screen equal here is Nolte, who turns the grandfather into a beacon of rumpled compassion and patient wisdom. Their scenes together, although lamentably few, provide the film with the anchor it otherwise lacks, bringing the episodic flurry to a momentary rest. Then, and only then, Clean relaxes into a single story-line with an engaging directness. Everywhere else, it flutters stylishly about while paging through its Rolodex of movies, unable to decide which one to be.

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