Most movies about junkies tend in the same direction - downward. "Clean," written and directed by Olivier Assayas and starring his former wife Maggie Cheung, is a rare example of a film where the drug addict secures a second chance.
Much of the story is familiar but this is only because, as is so often the case with films concerning junkies and their families, the course of the disease is agonizingly similar.
Emily (Cheung), who has just lost her longtime rock musician boyfriend Lee to a heroin overdose, is incarcerated for six months after the police bust her for possession. She and Lee have a young boy, Jay, who has been living with Lee's parents in Canada. Until she cleans up her act, she is prohibited by Lee's father Albrecht (Nick Nolte) from seeing the child. To pull herself together she decamps to her old bohemian stomping grounds in Paris - only to fall back into drug dependency.
Cheung's performance is extraordinarily subtle. She captures Emily's hair-trigger emotions, the way she rockets back and forth between jitteriness and malaise. Part of her behavior is obviously drug-induced, but Emily is often also this way even when she's clean. You get the feeling that life could go any which way for her at any time. Her ecstatic delight when she hears that Albrecht will be bringing her boy to visit her is countered by her despair at what could go wrong.
Emily has reason to be alarmed. Jay mistakenly holds his mother responsible for his father's overdose and wants nothing to do with her. It is Albrecht who convinces the boy that he cannot live with his grandparents forever and that he will need a mother. Nolte at first comes across in his familiar brawling mode but his performance reveals Albrecht to be a man of deep and caring conviction. For most denizens of the drug world, it is a given that junkies - like people in general - don't change. Albrecht thinks otherwise. "I believe in forgiveness," he says to Maggie, and his magnanimity is so soulful, and her love for her child so pungent, that she responds to the call.
Assayas doesn't sugarcoat Emily's difficulties, and the film's denouement is by no means unequivocal. But this is one of the rare movies where a character's spiritual redemption doesn't seem like a plot convenience. Maybe this is because Assayas lets us see just how hard won Emily's victory is and how much fighting still remains. Grade: A-
• Rated R for drug content, language, and brief nudity.