As part of the Charles Theatre's Cinema Sundays program, I attended a screening of the new Olivier Assayas film CLEAN, starring Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte. What follows is my review of the film.
I went in to see CLEAN not knowing anything about the film. In fact, I had only heard the title of the film a mere ten minutes before it began. If ever I have sat down to watch a film with absolutely no pre-conceived notions, this was it.
The film is a look into a woman, played by Cheung, who is struggling with a heroin addiction and attempting to launch a singing career. After her lover dies of an overdose, she sets about trying to straighten her life out and re-unite with her son, living with his grandparents in Vancouver.
The film weaves in and out between the different incidents in Cheung's life on the path to recovery. I did not find the depiction of addiction to be "harrowing", in the same way that films such as THE LOST WEEKEND depict it. Instead, it was simply matter-of-fact, filled with small touches to help the audience sympathize with the main character.
In the Q & A following the screening, it was commented on that many audiences have responded to the film feeling that Cheung's performance is the best thing about it. That may or may not be true; director Assayas keeps the pace moving with fluid cinematography and, on a number of occasions, Godardian jump-cuts. (Assayas, a former editor with Cahiers du Cinema, was obviously heavily influenced by Godard.) Aside from Nolte, in an interesting role as Cheung's father-in-law, the secondary cast is not given much to do, and their characters do not feel developed fully.
There is also a David Cronenberg-like objectivity with which Assayas paints his characters. He shows their faults as well as their strengths, and this works particularly well in the scenes later in the film, which could have bordered on schmaltzy but are kept quite effective by their matter-of-factness.
The film benefits from location work; San Francisco is glimpsed briefly in the film's final shot, and Canada is used effectively in the early sections, but the best locations, London and Paris, are used for the majority of the film.
Overall, I would rate this film **1/2 out of ****; it felt like an average film, with an excellent lead performance, that left me somewhat detached from its center and secondary characters.