The first trip-hop Lifetime movie, Olivier Assayas’s Clean musses up a schematic recovery/redemption junkie storyline and scores milieu-setting cameos from Tricky and Dave Roback. Above all, though, it’s an ode to Maggie Cheung composed by Assayas, her ex-husband. As Emily Wang, cut adrift from poisonous codependency with her has-been rock star boyfriend when he OD’s and she doesn’t, she’s a flawlessly disarrayed center, stumbling back to her Parisian roots to restart her life and regain custody of her son. And, postmodern Asian cinema fanboys rejoice: she even sings.
It’s possible that the sight of Maggie Cheung shooting up is just Trojan horseplay, dressing up maternal melodrama in leather boots. But Clean is fully genuine. A widescreen movie shot handheld (by Eric Gautier), the feel of its frame, simultaneously spacious and hectic, permeates Emily’s arc. As she careens towards her moment of clarity, the movie’s honest enough to get caught up in the rush — while Emily is sabotaging a job waitressing at her uncle’s restaurant, Assayas and Gautier are sneaking salivating glances at the Peking Duck.
The mood is best defined by Nick Nolte’s gruff sigh of a performance. As the father of Emily’s boyfriend, he’s constantly relinquishing pieces of his son — to the reissuers of his discography, who paint him as a self-destructive icon; and to Emily, especially — acts of generosity informed by an understanding of where he ends and the people around him begin.
Conversely, Clean’s conventional rigging is most visible anytime Emily’s unspeakably saucer-eyed moppet shows up to overenunciate a screenwriter’s idea of child psychology. Still, it’s hard to beat Assayas’s rendering of their reconciliation, capped by the son asking why his parents needed drugs. Mom: “They gave us some really good times.”