'Clean': Maggie Cheung, Kicking the Habit in Her Manolos

As Emily, a former addict, Maggie Cheung has a new obsession: getting her son back.
As Emily, a former addict, Maggie Cheung has a new obsession: getting her son back. (Palm Pictures Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006

The Hong Kong-born actress Maggie Cheung makes an improbably healthy-looking junkie in "Clean," a film by Olivier Assayas. Cheung knocked filmgoers out in her most recent movies, Wong Kar-Wai's "In the Mood for Love" and Zhang Yimou's "Hero," but it was Assayas who first put her on the map, in the playfully inventive 1996 film "Irma Vep," in which she played herself in a movie-within-a-movie remake of "Les Vampires." She proved to be a transfixing cinematic presence and has since then become one of this era's great screen objects.

That is what is both good and bad about "Clean," in which Cheung plays a would-be rock singer named Emily, a kind of cross between Yoko Ono and Courtney Love. After losing her rock-star lover to a heroin overdose, Emily -- herself an addict -- makes her way to Paris, where she works at her uncle's Chinese restaurant, goes on methadone and tries to resurrect her once-hot career; meanwhile, her young son is living with his grandfather (Nick Nolte) in Canada.

When Emily finally decides to kick all her habits and bring her son back into her life, she finds herself at the old man's mercy.

As it happens, Nolte's character -- named Albrecht Hauser -- has a lot of it to spare. Indeed, the central question of "Clean" shouldn't be Emily's chic aimlessness but the bigger mystery of Albrecht's capacity for forgiveness. Reminiscent of his galvanizing performance in the 1997 film "Affliction," Nolte's portrayal of Albrecht has a quiet, unrelenting power; he's the ultimate immovable object against the irresistible force of Emily's demons.

Despite that potentially fruitful dynamic, "Clean" instead turns out to be little more than a mannered study in hip cosmopolitanism. Unlike such larger-than-life cinematic wrecks as Jennifer Jason Leigh's title character in "Georgia" or Robin Wright Penn's unforgettable drunk in "She's So Lovely," Emily doesn't do much of anything, save for flitting from country to country and relying on the (inexplicable) kindness of near-strangers. Cheung still exerts her spell on the camera -- in fact, in its aestheticized depiction of addiction, "Clean" lives up to its title all too well -- but her Emily remains confoundingly impassive and self-absorbed. It's true that Assayas poses a provocative question in whether filmgoers would be as readily forgiving as Albrecht. But it would have helped if he had given them a protagonist they could sympathize with even slightly.

Clean (110 minutes, at Landmark E Street Cinema, in English and French with subtitles) is rated R for drug content, profanity and brief nudity.

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