Olivier Assayas' Clean opens in cinematic contemplativeness, with a series of views of lakeside smokestacks exhaling industrial clouds, haunting and ominous, by night and then by dawn. Then we're dropped amidst a curious little bustle: Aging rock musicians on a low-budget tour, unpacking their sedan by daylight in the parking lot of a cheap motel.
Our introduction to Lee (James Johnston) and Emily (Maggie Cheung), if not unduly graphic, is strikingly deglamorized: They're junkies on a career slide, and it's no surprise when Emily runs off that night after an argument, shoots up, nods out, and returns in the morning to find cops surrounding her man's OD'd corpse.
What follows, though, might surprise those familiar with Assayas' earlier work. Clean (now out on video) is the simplest, most straightforward story imaginable. With little subtext, or even subplot, it's about Emily getting out of jail and trying to straighten up enough to reclaim her young son, who's in the custody of Lee's parents, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary.
The 51-year-old, French-born director's previous films include the arty, postmodern Irma Vep (also starring Cheung), the insightful drama Late August, Early September and 2002's unnerving and epochal demonlover. All were films that demanded that you watch, and think, on several levels. In that context, Clean's close-up, almost melodramatic focus on its characters' plights and emotions is practically jarring.
It's not badly done. Assayas tracks Emily from her meeting with Albrecht in Vancouver to her old stomping grounds in Paris, where she struggles with methadone, fails at waitressing and attempts to build a new life on the tailings of her former fame. Cheung made her name in Jackie Chan films and years ago moved on to arthouse fare; for this role, her best-actress award at Cannes feels excessive, but it's competent work, and Nolte at least matches her.
Assayas, however, feels like he's treading water. Or perhaps Clean, the writer-director's first film in English, is simply a bid for overseas commercial success. It's otherwise difficult to explain some of the boilerplate dialogue, or the way he tries to goose our interest in the last reel with the old kid-lost-at-the-zoo ploy.
Clean contains glimpses of potential films more interesting than the single-mom redemption drama. Emily's attempts to re-enter the life in Paris she left behind, among former colleagues and admirers, are for instance invariably tangier than her battle with narcotics. And when Albrecht and Rosemary ponder the legacy of their OD'd, 42-year-old rocker son ... his place in a world they never really understood ... you again feel Assayas touching on something fresh, only to brush right past again.