Assayas Stumbles with a More Traditional Tale in “Clean”
by Peter Brunette
Sad to say, the talented French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has disappointed us once again. Here in the Cannes competition two years ago, he gave us “demonlover,” a film that started brilliantly before self-destructing. While incoherent, this earlier work at least was innovative and imaginative, if ultimately unsuccessful. “Clean,” his film in this year’s competition, is even more disappointing because he has clearly tried to film a more mainstream, linear-plotted story but has failed miserably. Now, even the delightful weirdness of the earlier film is gone and what we’re left with is a rambling, unfocused tale with patches of very bad acting from actors who are otherwise very good.
The plot is complicated but literal-minded, set in at least five different cities, including Hamilton and Vancouver in Canada, Paris, London, and San Francisco. (If uninspired, at least it has the virtue of being comprehensible, a not inconsiderable merit at this point in the festival.) The usually glorious Maggie Cheung, Assayas’ former wife, plays Emily, the drug-addled lover and manager of an equally drug-addled ’80s rock star, Lee Hauser, who’s been reduced to playing gigs in small towns in Canada.
They’re such basketcases that they don’t even try to raise their young child Jay who, we find out later, is living in Vancouver with his paternal grandfather Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and his grandmother Rosemary (Martha Henry). When Lee dies suddenly from a drug overdose and Emily gets out of prison on a drug possession charge, Jay’s grandparents decide it would be better if Emily didn’t see her son for a few years. Emily moves back to Paris, back to the world she once knew, but has great trouble making headway in her attempt to refashion her life by getting a straight job and liberating herself from the methadone she’s hooked on. Meanwhile, Albrecht and Rosemary, who’s sick and needs medical tests, end up with Jay in London (and thus conveniently close to Emily in Paris to keep the plot going). When Emily is offered a chance to record an album in San Francisco, she must decide between possible success as a singer and fulfillment as a mother by staying home to take care of Jay.
While admittedly lengthy, the summary outlined above gives only a quarter of the various permutations contained within the actual movie. Many paths are opened up (lesbianism, a visit by pop star Tricky, etc.) but few are followed for more than a few minutes. Though it starts well enough, the entire middle third of the film is completely slack, with Assayas — the director, let us remember, of such excellent films such as “Fin aout, debut septembre” (1999) and “L’eau froide” (1994) — contenting himself with endlessly repeating the central dilemma rather than developing it. Worse, everything of significance that happens ends up in the dialogue, rather than being dramatized, with Albrecht tying up all the loose ends of the plot with a little speech at the end that nicely — but unconvincingly — sorts out everyone’s life.
In early scenes by himself, Nolte gives his usual strong performance, but the scenes shot with Maggie Cheung are limp and unconvincing. In fact, it is Cheung herself who seems to have been unable to connect emotionally with the script, giving at best a pedestrian performance that will leave most viewers uninvolved. The child actor playing Jay (James Dennis) is exceptionally weak, but this seems to be a function more of the too-adult lines he’s been given rather than any inherent lack of talent.
The moral of the story comes down to whether you think people can change, as Albrecht believes, or whether they can’t, as another character opines earlier. Assayas seems to find this dilemma profound, and it is, at least potentially, but not when it is embodied in the happy-ending, sadder-but-wiser TV movie form that “Clean” unfortunately takes. What’s most painful here is Assayas’ obviously sincere effort to tell a traditional story for once, which he is, for better or worse, completely unable to do.