Clean written and directed by Olivier Assayas, produced by Edouard Weil, Xavier Giannoli, Sarah Perry, Xavier Marchand and Niv Fichman, with Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte and Don McKellar. 110 minutes. A TVA Films release. Opens Friday (March 4). For venues and times, see Movies, page 91. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
French director Olivier Assayas has now made two compelling films with Maggie Cheung.
In the first, 1996's Irma Vep, he explored his own fascination with Cheung by dressing her in a latex catsuit and having a fictional director extol her martial arts grace.
In Clean, he again explores the relationship between fetish and identity, casting Cheung as a siren-muse-addict trapped in a downward spiral and desperate to change her own and others" perception of herself.
Cheung and Assayas fell in love on the set of Irma Vep and married. The marriage lasted only a few years, and it was almost 10 years before they worked together again, but there"s clearly still chemistry between them. Clean is probably Assayas"s best work since Vep, and the similarity in theme suggests that this isn"t a coincidence.
Why is it that male directors make great films by casting their women lovers? Woody Allen did his best work with Mia Farrow, and Ingrid Bergman shone under husband Roberto Rossellini"s hand. More recently, Alexander Payne, directing Sandra Oh in Sideways, brought a new dimension to her work.
The two films Cheung and Assayas made together provide insights into these passionate and usually tumultuous relationships.
Both are about a woman and how she"s perceived. In Vep, Cheung is wide-eyed and confused, the object of others" projections. Is she a Chinese femme fatale whose martial arts grace will save a moribund remake? The costume designer thinks she"s hot - does she like girls? The second director brought in to replace the first sees her as an interloper who should go back to making kung fu movies.
Clean, in many ways, is a more advanced and sophisticated exploration of similar tensions between projection, fetishization, fantasy and reality. Here, Assayas paints a remarkable portrait of a person trapped by her own idea of herself.
Cheung plays Emily, a woman having to deal with the long hangover after an even longer addiction.
She struggles with drugs and with the conviction of everyone around her that she is, irrevocably, an addicted troublemaker. Sort of - but never really - clean and sober, she yearns to see her young son, now living with her dead boyfriend"s parents on the other side of the world. Emily knows she has to change not so much who she is, but who other people think she is.
Can you change who you are without changing who you are? This is a character immersed in a quiet struggle to keep her core identity intact while becoming someone else. It"s obvious from the way she desperately chain-smokes and punches the buttons of her cell that she"s on the edge.
There"s something intimate and natural about Cheung"s acting. It"s like she doesn"t even have to perform the lines written by her ex-husband; he"s portrayed her as she is, a chameleon actor endlessly searching for a new role while maintaining a core identity.
Both Vep and Clean are eulogies to a moment in a relationship when the past converges with the present that speaks to the way things are and the tragic truth of time passing - the way things won"t ever be again.
They"re about the moment when we realize the people we know and love will continue to change despite or because of us.