The story follows rocker Lee Hauser (James Johnston) for about 10 minutes, until he does the one thing that rockers do better than anyone else on Earth: drop dead of a heroin overdose.
Then it follows his widow, Emily (Maggie Cheung) as she does what rocker widows do better than everybody else: go into rehab, get hooked on methadone and try to regain custody of her kid. It's kind of like the Courtney Love story, if Courtney Love were made of Maggie Cheung molecules instead of bleach, lipids and hooves.
Maggie Cheung is surprisingly good in Clean. She plays strongly against the type of her previous roles here in that her part is neither a romantic lead nor does it involve doing wire-fu while dressed like a fan-art contribution to The Dragonball Z Illustrated Guide to Eyebrow Waxing.
Instead, she plays a difficult, addicted woman who is undergoing a mournful transition from second-rate rock girlfriend to third-rate has-been. It's not glamorous, and director Olivier Assayas is smart enough not to glamorize it. Instead, in a series of rapidly moving hand-held close-ups that defy the laws of physics, he chases his lead around Paris and London as she scores drugs, waits tables and looks like she used to be pretty.
The camera work by cinematographer Eric Gautier is really amazing. Much of it is zoomed way in and shot while Cheung runs through crowded train stations and shopping malls. The camera never loses her, nor does it suffer from the dizzying shake typical of the tight zoom. I have no idea how he pulled this off; combined with the film's soundtrack, it produces an effect like an expertly crafted rock video.
The soundtrack is worthy of the rock-video treatment. Featuring music influenced by the softer side of The Velvet Underground, it includes numbers by Brian Eno, Tricky, Metric and Dean Wareham, as well as some vocals by Maggie Cheung on some very Mazzy Star-influenced numbers.
So judged on the camerawork, acting and music, Clean is one of the best films of the year. And yet, Clean is not one of this year's best films. Instead, it's a meandering and only occasionally interesting story, too concerned with highlighting its excellent camerawork, acting and soundtrack to spend enough time sticking to the elements of plot and story that are needed to knit these things together.
A lot of what's on screen is just Assayas indulging his directing talents, which are immense. Sadly, he also wrote Clean, and his plotting talents are the opposite of immense. They're highly mense. The film spends too much time doing what the French do best, which is looking and sounding good, and not enough time doing what the French do worst, which is sticking to the story.
The movie does gain some momentum from Nick Nolte, who plays the grandfather to Cheung's estranged son. When Nolte appears in England, Cheung is given a chance to reconnect with her boy, and the drama that had been drained out of the film by its own artistry re-enters with some force.
Nolte is also very good here, as is pretty much everyone. If they had a more cohesive story, I think this would have been an excellent film. The dialogue has a very real feel to it, and the characters' choices always seem well-motivated without becoming painfully mundane.
It's just the pacing and construction of the story that fails. It's been said that everyone poops, but we don't need to see it during the 110 minutes of the average film. Some filmmakers have asked "why not?" and have tried to show the aspects of life that are left out of most movies. But those things are left out for a reason, and it takes a lot of skill to make washing dishes or drinking coffee into a dramatic moment. While Assayas has that power in his directorial skill, he fails to integrate these moments into the larger story, or to show why they're important in terms of theme and movement.
Still, with its bafflingly good visuals and ethereal music, Clean makes for a decent movie-going experience, especially if you're stoned on methadone. So I guess I'd recommend that you score some methadone and go watch Clean. Not really! Methadone is a dangerous drug that should only be taken under a doctor's care.