Junkie recovery sagas rarely come from a place of heartfelt experience—Olivier Assayas' Clean, like virtually every major film about scag users and their long haul out of the darkness, is a movie made at a remove, and out of fascinated pity. He's also working in a movie tradition of gorgeous hard-core addicts who rarely look any worse for wear than your average Calvin Klein model. Maggie Cheung, in Clean, is her usually radiant self, despite a scary basement-barber do and her character's years of use.
Be that as it may, Assayas crafts a bitter, spot-on poison-pen sketch of the airless, stenchy subterranea of the fringe rock world, in which Cheung's heroine, Emily, is a failed post–new wave diva. After detoxing in a Canadian prison—where she hardly registers a chilling visit from Don McKellar's quietly bilious promoter—she's kindly kissed off by her dead boyfriend's dad (Nick Nolte, in a masterfully grave and sympathetic performance). She also attempts to reconstruct her life and wean herself off drugs, for the sake of a young son she may not see again.
A woman without a country, Emily is a square peg and a lousy actress—on methadone, the effort to craft a normal conversational response is palpable; off it, the tension of being straight makes her creepy. Cheung and Assayas famously signed their divorce papers on the set, and the circumstances could only have added to Cheung/Emily's fierce unlikability. Hitting the ground in his ultra-naturalistic mode, Assayas only uncages his star's formidable smile once or twice and never demands our empathy, making Clean a uniquely pungent portrait of dependent personalities and the strain they put on the social weave. All the same, and despite Cheung's deserved Best Actress win at Cannes '04, the feigned intimacy with inexpressible bio-emotional conditions like addiction and detox leaves us, as it almost always does, on the outside.