On the basis of Hong Kong imports such as The Heroic Trio, In The Mood For Love, Hero, and 2046, Maggie Cheung ranks as one of cinema's few iconic beauties, but along with that glamour comes a certain cool distance. Though her performances are often affecting, they give no suggestion of who the "real" Cheung might be, which sets her apart from the Method actors who labor to reveal themselves. So leave it to Cheung's former husband, versatile French director Olivier Assayas, to demythologize her. Cheung played herself in Assayas' witty 1996 movie-movie Irma Vep, appearing as a Hong Kong superstar lost amid the chaos of the French film industry. Still, that was barely a primer for her bracing work in Assayas' Clean, in which she plays a chain-smoking, motor-mouthed pariah who tries against the odds to overcome a heroin addiction. Good as she is, it's almost a shame to know she's human, after all.
Channeling the Courtney Loves and Yoko Onos of the world, Cheung stars as the embattled wife of a fading rock star whose decline has been largely–and perhaps fairly–attributed to her influence. When her husband dies from a drug overdose, Cheung serves a six-month prison sentence and gets released with no friends, no prospects, and the lingering affects of addiction. Though her father-in-law Nick Nolte shows remarkable sympathy for her plight, he and his wife retain custody of Cheung's young son, and he requests that she stay away from the boy for a few years, until she can get her act together. Struggling with a new dependence on methadone, Cheung bounces around Paris for a while, waiting tables at a Chinese restaurant while trying to revive her moribund music career. The only thing keeping her life from circling down the drain is the possibility of reuniting with her son.
Assayas' filmography is loaded with curveballs, from Irma Vep's New Wave energy to the exquisite period trappings of Sentimental Destinies, so it's surprising that he'd play conventional movie-of-the-week material this straight. Though enhanced by a choice soundtrack (the use of ambient Brian Eno is particularly strong), beautiful widescreen cinematography, and Assayas' usual cosmopolitan touch, Clean doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel. The film gets its distinction from the performances by Cheung and Nolte, whose scenes together are suffused with loss and unexpected mutual compassion. Though he has every reason to hold her responsible for his son's death, as his obstinate wife does, Nolte believes that everyone deserves a second chance, and Cheung clings to this courtesy as her only lifeline. Without it, she would be recovering to nothing.