A Little Too 'Clean'

Maggie Cheung, with James Dennis, aims to stay
Maggie Cheung, with James Dennis, aims to stay "Clean." (Palm Pictures)
Friday, June 9, 2006

In "Clean," the French director Olivier Assayas shepherds his ex-wife and muse, Maggie Cheung, through a pivotal career move, one that seems designed to break her out of what has become an almost stifling iconic role as one of her era's great screen objects.

He only partially succeeds. Deservedly adored for bringing her signature restrained beauty to lead performances in such period pieces as "In the Mood for Love" and "Hero," here Cheung plays a modern-day heroin addict and would-be rock star who, after the death of her boyfriend, tries to get her life in order and regain custody of their young son. Nick Nolte delivers a bearish, sympathetic performance as the boy's grandfather, a man whose capacity for forgiveness and faith borders on the saintly.

Indeed, it's the moral journey of Nolte's character that is the real story in "Clean," but Assayas instead focuses on the manipulative habits of an addict, resulting in a mannered study of narcissism and self-pity. Cheung's chic, rootless boho is admittedly beautiful, which seems to be why so many people inexplicably help her, even when she continues to lie, cheat and use. In its discreet, mostly off-screen portrayal of drug use and its ravages (no "Requiem for a Dream" track marks here), "Clean" lives up to its title -- to a fault.

-- Ann Hornaday

Clean R, 110 minutes Contains drug content, profanity and brief nudity. In English and French with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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