Thereâs Always Tomorrow
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Olivier Assayas, France/ UK/ Canada, Palm Pictures
There was a time when I was sure that Clean would be some kind of petite hit. I first saw it play at Lincoln Center a couple of years ago with a friend who is as little a film snob as I am definitively one; when we walked out, she and I were both uncharacteristically afraid to start talking, and for the same reasonâwe knew that if we opened our mouths our voices would crack and, just like that, we would wind up bawling.
Now the ability to incite a detectable physical reaction in a viewer is by no means the mark of cinematic greatnessâif this were the case, Dead Poets Society and Dream Teens 5 would be undisputedly among the greatest accomplishments of the mediumâbut to produce bracing emotion without having stacked the deck with screenwriterâs tricks, without the aid of sentimental molestation, as Clean does, is an accomplishment that shouldnât be undervalued.
Having acquired Assayasâs latest film not long after its star, Maggie Cheung, very justifiably won Best Actress at Cannes 2004 for her performance in it, Palm Pictures promptly did absolutely nothing with Clean for nearly two years (despite a teasing smatter of press screenings early last year, followed by an announced-then-withdrawn â05 release date), then granted a ceremonial theatrical residence to a few prints of the film a month or so back. For fanfare, Clean was allotted an advertising budget roughly equaling that of the kung-fu fleapit in Queens that advertises in the Voice (âNew Policy: Two New Action Films at All Timesâ). The critical consensus was reservedly positive, though well shy of praise.
All of which should be just cause for the melancholy contemplation of our fetid mess of a film culture (Just how bad are things? Right now, someone is sighing: âSo, do you want to see Brick or The Proposition?â). Clean is largely English-language, luxuriantly emotional, pairs one of world cinemaâs most remarkable leading ladies with the late-career Renaissance star of 48 Hrs., and is chock-a-block with hip, rock rag-sanctioned references. If a flick like this canât do brisk business in American art houses, what can?
Clean begins amidst vistas of Hamilton, Ontarioâs ashen smokestacks. Lee Hauser (James Johnston, formerly of the band Gallon Drunkâeveryone who plays a musician in Clean is, in fact, a musician) arrives in the burnt-out town for a gigâheâs a 42-year old rocker of dissipated reputation, thanks to the two monkeys on his back: his heroin habit and his scag-hag wife, Emily Wang (Cheung), who reinforces it. They hit up a show to watch the Toronto band Metric play their appropriately nihilistic road anthem, âDead Discoââlater backstage banter reveals that Lee and Emily have a kid together, abandoned to be raised by his parents. You might have a tough time getting by frontwoman Emily Hainesâs line-readings, but the detail work on this outer-margins-of-rock-significance stuff feels on target, down to the beers in the bathroom sink, and you can settle into the movie knowing youâre in good hands. The abrasive Mrs. Wang tangles first with Leeâs manager (played by Canuck director Don McKellar, in chunky-rimmed geek chic glasses), then Leeâover her âpsychedelic junky fantasy worldâ perception of her husbandâs major label marketability, then over the music pressesâ casting of her as a succubus (from what we see, the rep doesnât seem unjustified). She storms out of their motel and spends the night in their sedan, overlooking a shoreline walled with diabolical industryâthe slow slackening of Emilyâs close-up, saturated-red lips amidst the dusky widescreen as she shoots up is one of the most lush images in recent filmmaking. When she gets back the next morning, Lee has ODâd, sheâs busted for possessionâand the partyâs over.
Assayas, always a director unusually attentive to locking together song and image, whose proposed next project is a concert movie with demonlover collaborators Sonic Youth, has made his first real rock ânâ roll film hereâand an excessively astute one, at that. Though Clean has been in mothballs for a couple of years, you could be forgiven, considering the vintage of its musical guest stars, for thinking it had been shot in 1999: Tricky? Mazzy Starâs David Roback (even a character in the film has to think a bit before saying âI remember Mazzy Starâ)? I think Assayas, a with-it guy, is aware that these points of reference are several paces behind the perpetual onward surge of Next Big Thingsâand this is part-and-parcel with what heâs addressing here, in his oblique way: the rapacity with which the recording industry swallows up creative kids and squats them out. Leeâs father, Albrecht (Nick Nolte, whose reticent line readings are a gentle rumble), ruminates over the final stage in the process, as represented in the liner notes for reissues of his sonâs discography: âThese journalists have this romantic idea of self-destructionâŠâ
A lot of critics belittled what they perceived as soap-opera traditionalism in Cleanâs narrative, particularly when placing it in comparison to the glassy Capitalist nightmare of demonloverâin fact a far less complex film. What almost nobody seemed to notice was how similar these two jet-set films were, both being concerned with the marketing and production mechanisms of internationally distributed entertainmentsâporn in demonlover, pop in Clean. Beyond its function as a kick-the-habit melodramaâthough it is that at base, and a restrained, remarkably modulated example of its typeâClean enacts a marketplace tragedy, a kind-of rock music New Grub Street for the era of global capitalism. Transaction is the movieâs hidden-on-the-surface plot: Canadian dollars, Euros, pounds, the camera documents the movement of them all with the assiduous attention of Bressonâs LâArgent. The filmâs laced with the dollars-and-cents stuff that most movies elide: selling Leeâs album postmortem (â[heâs] worth a lot more dead than alive,â notes McKellar), settling his debts through property sales, Emilyâs hustling for work. To treat the filmâs trendy milieu as chic-for-the-sake-of-chic, or its hemisphere-hopping as a bid for co-production bucks, is not only cynical, but a bad-faith underestimation of Assayas, a theory-smart director who, even at his most free-wheeling, is hyper-attentive to what heâs doing and why heâs doing it.
One primary difference between Clean and demonlover is that this film forces Assayas to tangle with pop music, something that he evidently loves, as both a market force and an art medium; I donât think he had anything like the same ambivalence towards the manga and CGI smut in demonlover, and the result was a deathtrip movie that lacked friction in its hollows. Music is not just avaricious industry here, but the movieâs heartbeat, the instrument of and the soundtrack to Emilyâs destruction and to her recovery. Once our heroineâs sprung from her six-month prison stint (flitted past by the film), she shops around some demos she recorded in the stir with another convict: one characterâs analysis of Emilyâs Nico impressionââNot good, not bad. Like a lot of other stuffââisnât inaccurate, but thatâs not the point. Emily needs something to help her form a new sense of identity thatâs still distinct from the terror of normality; probably Cleanâs most deadpan comic moment comes as she interviews with a minor department store exec with a bad comb-over, and he recalls the music video program that Emily had hosted years ago: âIt was my generation,â he remembers, and the elevator doors shutting on them may as well be a coffin being sealed. Itâs the way music, or taste, enters into a lot of our livesâmaking us feel privy to something special, and therefore feeling special ourselvesâand itâs to the movieâs credit that it neither condescends to Emilyâs mediocrity or oversells her as a genius. As per genius: Clean is refrained by a trio of Brian Eno songsââAn Ending (Ascent),â âSpider & I,â and âTaking Tiger Mountainâ; the way their synths pour over the soundtrack feels like warm water rushing through a sluice; they give the movie a float that moves from methadone space-out to a blurry-eyed optimism.
Emilyâs rehab is no exercise in dry theoryâitâs the excruciatingly detailed, day-by-day document of an obliterated woman trying to re-articulate herself as a person from out of the haze of addiction. The trajectory of her journey recalls a line from John Watersâs Cecil B. Demented: âBefore I started doing drugs, I had so many problems. Now I only have one. Drugs. I have a focus now.â The tweaked-out stress of scoring is replaced by more slippery complications: Emily has to try to define herself in a role sheâs never played, motherhood, and find a way to prepare herself for release and adaptation into an economy where, in the natural order, she was expected to die before she got old. The emotional carrot-on-a-stick in her rehab is prompted by her strained relationship with Albrecht: he has custody of her kid, and doesnât intend to give him back until his daughter-in-law gets her proverbial shit in one sock. Nolteâwho filled in with short notice as Albrecht, replacing a fatally ill Alan Batesâgives a tentative, intelligent performance: heâs mindful of everything, especially the timbre of his creaking voice, and he navigates his way through his handful of scenes involving the handling of his sonâs estate without ever slouching into befuddled âkids todayâ fogeyism; even when he has to bring up âthis fellow Tricky,â he plays straight past the opportunity to step out and wink from his characterization.
Emily moves back to Paris, where sheâd lived years ago; she tries to find and hold a job, re-connects with old girlfriends (also ex-lovers, BĂ©atrice Dalle and Jeanne Balibar are typical Assayas womenâindependent, stylish, beautiful, and most often trendily bisexual), and with old girlfriendâs girlfriends, as in a awkwardly integrated subplot involving Balibarâs chick, Laetitia Spigarelli, probably the filmâs most untenable supporting part. Clean has no affinity for big scenesâit plays as a collection of odds and endsâso weâre spared the sight of Cheung gnashing and thrashing on the carpet through withdrawal, we donât see her squaring her shoulders and swearing resolutionsâDP Eric Gautierâs incidental-seeming camerawork records Emily tearing up her methadone prescription without much more bathos than it follows her swiping her bus pass. When Emily admits to her son what sheâs denied to everyone else in the movieâthat she bought the junk that killed her husbandâitâs so casual you might not even catch it. At any rate, sheâll soon enough be scrounging for pharmaceuticals in purses and medicine cabinets, slipping back into her bullshittingââchange,â a word that keeps cropping up in this film, doesnât just happen; itâs a perpetual scrabble of backslides and quotidian humiliations, which Clean lends visceral gravitas. When, in one precisely edited scene, spaced-out Emily face plants during a waitressing shift, you might jolt as though sheâd just been stabbed.
The payoff for her work isnât any real kind of resolution, just another vista, to bookend the movie with the poisoned, slate skies above Hamilton. Emily, having managed to wrangle a recording session, steps out to catch a smoke, and sheâs suddenly looking across San Francisco Bayâitâs an expansive moment in a movie thatâs retained such a close clench on its subject: a clogged perspective is replaced by a clean one. And if itâs not quite redemption, itâs as close as anyone could reasonably hope for.