Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) and her rock-star boyfriend Lee (James Johnston), are in Hamilton, Ontario. Their careers are on the skids, they can’t stand each other, and they take refuge in the needle. After an argument, Emily walks out, shoots up, and comes back to find Lee dead of an overdose and herself under arrest for possession. Six months later, and out of jail, Emily tries to rebuild herself and be reconciled with her and Lee’s son.
French director Olivier Assayas has had a wayward career so far, alternating some standard Euro-arthouse fare (Late August, Early September and Les destinées sentimentales, also co-writing the script for Alice et Martin, directed by André Techiné) with more offbeat projects like Irma Vep (a tribute to the silent serial Les vampires) and the controversial SF film Demonlover. Irma Vep starred the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, whom Assayas later married. They divorced in 2001, but that seems to have been amicable enough for them to have made another film together. That film was Clean, and it won Cheung the Best Actress award at Cannes in 2004. It’s a demanding role, for sure, as it requires Cheung to deliver dialogue in three languages, and also sing. The challenge of a film like this is to maintain interest in a character who, not to put too fine a point on it, is a spoiled bitch in the early stages. Clean is the story of how someone puts her life back together. Despite the title, this isn’t just in terms of giving up drugs.
Given the demands of the role, Cheung performs well, but there’s a slightly remote, glacial quality to her performance and the film as a whole. There’s a sense that the director and lead actress, both working mostly outside their first language, haven’t quite got to grips with their subject matter. In any case, the best performance in this film comes from Nick Nolte as Lee’s father Albrecht, who gives every scene he’s in considerably more gravitas and depth that it perhaps merits. I can’t comment on the accuracy of the film’s music-business background, but the film contains cameos from Tricky and David Roback (of Mazzy Star) as themselves. (Assayas has said that he used the various musicians in the film as technical advisors to ensure accuracy, so I guess we have to take his word for it.) Assayas shows a good eye for industrial architecture, especially with some beautifully composed shots near the beginning of the film. But there’s a sense he’s captured the surface of this story but missed its heart.
Edko’s NTSC DVD release of Clean is encoded for Region 3 only. Shot in 3-perforation 35mm, The picture gets an anamorphic transfer in a ratio of 2.35:1. The picture is certainly soft but colours seem true and blacks solid.
The soundtrack is a 2.0 mix, which plays as analogue Dolby Surround. Considering that the film was released with Dolby Digital and DTS tracks for cinema release, you have to wonder why a 5.1 mix wasn’t provided here. The available soundtrack is certainly quite an immersive one, with lots of ambient sounds in the surround channel. Dialogue is easily audible, despite the many accents on display. Even so, you can’t help wondering how much clearer a digital multi-channel mix would be, and how greater the dynamic range it would have. This is the “English version” of a French/UK/Canada co-production, but all that means is that we have the original synchronised dialogue: mostly in English, with many of the scenes in France conducted in French, and one scene in Chinese (presumably Cantonese, but I’m no expert). Oddly enough, despite both sets of credits being in English the occasional caption is in French: for example, “Six mois plus tard” as Emily leaves prison. The English subtitles only translate the non-English dialogue (oddly, the translation of the caption I’ve just quoted appears on screen about a minute early), so I wouldn’t recommend this disc for the hard of hearing. There are a set of Chinese subtitles, but I’m not qualified to judge their accuracy. If you’re sufficiently polyglot, you can do without subtitles altogether. There are a rather skimpy twelve chapter stops.
The extras begin with 2:49 of footage from the Hong Kong gala screening, presented in 4:3. Maggie Cheung speaks about the film, but she does so in Cantonese and no subtitles are provided. The theatrical trailer (1:53) is in non-anamorphic 2.35:1 with Chinese subtitles in the lower black bar. The picture quality is very dark and contrasty. The stills gallery contains ten colour pictures, using a simple left-and-right navigation system.
The final extra are three pages, giving dates of birth and very selective filmographies (no more than five titles each) for Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte and Olivier Assayas. Each page has a link to an interview. Cheung’s interview runs 13:56 , Nolte’s 6:59, Assayas’s 20:14, and all three are spoken in English. Assayas gives a lot of credit to Cheung, namechecking Wong Kar-Wai as the director who really unlocked her potential as an actress.
Assayas as a director has something of a cult following who aim to rescue Demonlover from its disastrous critical and public reception. With its awards, Clean comes with a higher reputation preceding it, but it’s a film that for me never really hits the spot despite the talent behind it. As for the DVD, I would wait until other regions release their own editions.