The Best Films of 2006
Why is Clean called Clean? The most obvious reason is that the narrative centers around the attempted detoxing of Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung), the volatile, irresponsible, casually abrasive Mrs. of a rock star named Lee Hauser. Lee lives to see the other side of his prime but dies before truly acute embarrassment sets in: Emily procures some heroin one night in Hamilton, Ontario, they quarrel, they both take hits while spending the night separately but alone, he dies, and she doesn't. She does, however, serve six months in prison, loses her home-base apartment in London, and bears the perfectly apt decision of a Canadian court to award custody of her young son to Lee's parents, the bashful but magnanimous Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and the dying but hard-willed Rosemary (Martha Henry). In story terms, Emily's renunciation of drugs is most obviously a prerequisite for securing at least some visiting rights, if not full custody, of her childand yet, neither in plot nor in style does Clean ever take shape as the maternity melodrama that writer-director Olivier Assayas leads us to expect. Neither a Sirkian bath in rich colors and expressionist worldviews nor a visually ascetic character drama in the Cassavetes mold (such as this year's fleetingly similar Sherrybaby), Clean refuses either to fetishize or to undercut Emily's bond with her son, and it breaks profoundly with its generic templates by emphasizing narrative momentum without leading Emily toward a plane of maternal competence or demonstrating definitively that she isn't cut out for the job. Clean takes the drugs out of Emily's hands, at least kinda sortathere are hints of back-sliding all over the dialogue, and occasionally in the imagesbut has the gumption to withhold any clear, compensatory object of transference, for her or for us. "Clean" Emily is a listless but not quite lost Emily: inspired to write and sing music that is neither good nor terrible, guaranteed neither success nor failure in the pursuit of her own recording career, both in love with her son and impatient with her mothering role, both humbly responsive to Albrecht's benevolence and unable to be fully straight with him, Emily doesn't come into focusa testament not to disarray but to uncommon discipline in Assayas' film.
If the cinematography weren't so precisely choreographed and gorgeously detailed, and the editing weren't so polished and rhythmically sound, Clean might come across as a shamble instead of a film that insists on Emily's plausible existence, and the humane, unheroic poetry of her personal and professional dilettantism. Colors, angles, camera movements: they are all exerted with consummate control in Clean's diverse sequences, from the enervated hustle of a greasy waitressing job to the endorphin rush of an amped-up club gig to the fragile politeness of offering shelter to a catastrophic friend to Nolte's frightened, dignified, and subtly rebellious reactions to his wife's mortality (and, by extension, his own) to a bit of comic skullduggery surrounding a lipstick-lesbian record producer and her captive ex-lover (which teases more quickly and playfully at retrograde crazy-dyke stereotypes than do the turgid excesses of Notes on a Scandal). Few films in 2006 so comfortably wedded visual finesse and savvy editing to such a pronouncedly story-driven endeavor, and if Clean doesn't always have a strong sense of where it's going, and if the indie-rock idiom occasionally outs itself as a naïve outsider's projection, one shouldn't overlook how brave the movie is to buck the trends not just of bad-mommy morality plays but of standard drug-recovery dramas and of Maggie Cheung's high-glamour iconography and of Assayas' own recent filmography. Clean follows, incongruously, the baroque paranoias and Lynchian short-circuitries of the estimable demonlover, though in its quiet way, Clean shares with its predecessor (and with Irma Vep) an interest in the tribulations and machinations of complex women in creative industries, as well as a polyglot sensibility that presumes the smallness of the world. Clean moves in and out of Canada, England, France, and the United States with the same understated fluency of its swerves in and out of redemptive drama, tacit comedy, and voyeuristic showbiz-fantasy. A second viewing is, in my experience, a shaky proposition: the film's refusal to settle questions and the concerted affectlessness of Cheung's performance, occasionally flirting with blandness, are not as refreshing the second time around. Too, the nascent Americanization of Emily in the final scenes feels like a rhetorical move with too little warrant in emotional substance or dramatic satisfaction. Still, Clean deploys its humanistic style in the service of legitimately interesting humans, who relate to each other in plausible, demanding, and affecting ways when they aren't name-dropping Tricky. Its sense of space and of place are beyond reproach, and without a Babel-like bone in its body, it captures the essence of a contemporary life lived across the outmoded borders of nation, region, genre, or conventionally defined gender rolesa life riven with self-destructive impulses but beginning to sound the first, tentative notes of stability.