Emily Wang, the lead character of Clean, was written by Olivier Assayas with his former wife Maggie Cheung in mind. The Maggie Cheung of Clean however is a far cry from the actress who in Irma Vep incarnated all the life, freshness and innocence that the Assayas felt was missing in modern French cinema. Emily Wang is a person who has been worn down and corrupted by the industry - the music industry in this case – living with a musician, Lee Hauser (James Johnston), whose drug habit is negatively affecting his career and the renewal of his record contract. Emily is a heroin user herself, and the whole situation makes for a rocky relationship. When Lee dies of an overdose, Emily finds herself in trouble with the authorities.
Emily’s Yoko Ono-like reputation wasn’t particularly good before Lee’s death, and it’s worth even less when she is released from 6 months in prison, her former friends, colleagues and family wanting to have nothing to do with her. On methadone to get over her addiction, she is unable even to look after her and Lee’s child, who is taken into the care of his grandfather Albrecht (Nick Nolte). Hoping to clean up her act and get her son back, she returns to Paris to work as a waitress in her uncle’s Chinese restaurant and then in a women’s department store, but the work doesn’t satisfy her. She still feels the draw of the music industry, and has even recorded a demo while in prison, but worse, she still feels the draw of drugs.
Like Assayas’s first feature film Désordre, Clean is no rags to riches rock story. The director throws us into a situation of lives in disintegration before they have ever achieved their potential, certainly not the romantic dream and impossible ideal of the rock star. Lee Hauser’s recognition comes after his death at the very start of the film, earning him a much more favourable contract than he could ever have achieved alive. This is the reality of the rock and roll myth. And like Désordre, it’s the death of someone close, destroyed by the rock and roll lifestyle, that serves as a wake-up call that must be heeded – an acceptance and return to real-life and grown-up responsibilities.
Clean is in this respect another post-rock film from Assayas, capturing the essence of the whole music scene and the industry, its detachment from reality, the lie of dream it sells and the disillusionment with the realisation that it doesn’t offer an escape from responsibility. It’s a theme that is evident also in another of Assayas’s films, in the disaffection of teenage youth in L’Eau Froide, and like that film, the director alludes to the power and the persuasive attraction of music, capturing its essence through a couple of brief sequences – Béatrice Dalle playing pool at a table while listening to a demo tape, Maggie Cheung in a recording studio. In doing so, he captures everything that music represents to people – a means of expression, salvation and the hope of escape.
It’s a fairly simple and redemptive storyline from Assayas, but one that is all the more impressive for the remarkable serenity and assurance with which it is filmed. The director makes no attempt to shock and awe – there is no place here for false sentiment or manipulation of the viewer – rather, Assayas searches for the truth and reality in these characters, which is the whole purpose of the film. That assurance and truth stretches to the performances of the cast, each of them bringing a certain quality and variety of tone to the film – Nick Nolte’s solid reliability, Jeanne Balibar’s playful eccentricity, Béatrice Dalle’s edgy charm and self-assurance – but it’s Maggie Cheung who really impresses, allowing her own character to come through, her simplicity and relaxed modesty. Even more so than in Irma Vep, Assayas puts his faith in Maggie Cheung to bring truth to his idea of cinema, and Clean consequently is a film that is all the more moving for the simple honesty of its approach.
Clean is released in the UK by Momentum. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
Momentum’s DVD presentation isn’t too impressive. It is at least anamorphic and in the correct aspect ratio of 2:35:1, which wasn’t always the case on other international releases of film. Running to 111 minutes moreover, it would appear that Momentum have sourced the transfer from an NTSC master and converted it to PAL format. It’s a pretty bad conversion. The image is fairly littered with artefacts of one sort or another, juddering in camera pans, the interlaced image blurring, and pixilisation breaking up the image whenever there is movement on the screen. Colours are smeary with a tendency towards posterisation in wide bands, while blacks are flat, greyish and lacking in shadow detail. Basically, it a nasty bog-standard NTSC to PAL transfer that will look acceptable enough on a relatively small display to an undiscriminating eye - the overly contrast brightened image gives the surface impression of being sharp and colourful enough – but projected or watched on any kind of large progressive display, this is going to look atrocious.
The audio is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 only, which is not really adequate for the film. It’s dull and echoing and dialogue can often be rather difficult to make out, particularly in scenes where there is background chatter or music playing. There are plenty of editions out there with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of the film, so this really doesn’t cut it.
English subtitles are in a white font and relatively small in size. There are options to have English subtitles for the French dialogue in the film only, full captioned English subtitles for the hard of hearing, or no subtitles at all.
Extra features are limited to Interviews and a Trailer (1:45), but the interviews prove to be very informative. Olivier Assayas (20:17) explains his subject and approach – in perfect English – perfectly summing up how the film works. He talks about how it was to direct Maggie Cheung in the film and how he searched for authenticity in the filming of the rock music elements of the film. Maggie Cheung (13:51) talks about her character and just what she brought to the role, how it was working with Nick Nolte and the other actors, and what she personally gained from the film. There are also contributions from Tricky (4:17), the band Metric (3:08), Don McKeller (4:00) and James Johnston (3:25), all of whom testify to the realistic way in which Assayas films rock music, and the addictive links between music and drugs. Nick Nolte (7:00) talks about the different way of working on a French independet film, and his experience working with Assayas.
With Clean, Olivier Assayas confirms that he is one of the greatest film directors of rock music. There are scarcely any scenes of music performances in the film and only sparing use of music on the soundtrack, yet the film is no less infused with the whole attitude of the rock ethos and lifestyle. More than just the story of recovery of a heroin addict, Assayas - with a tremendous performance from Maggie Cheung - brings to the screen the harsh realities behind the rock and roll dream. Momentum however clearly haven’t bothered to find a suitable source for the DVD, finding a poor quality NTSC master and subjecting it to an inadequate PAL conversion. There are better editions of this film available on DVD and I would suggest you look to those as a way to see this fine film.