Too quick to judge


Palm Pictures

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas

Starring: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte, Martha Henry, Beatrice Dalle, James Johnston and James Dennis

Rated R/111 minutes

Opened July 7, 2006

Four out of four stars

Emily Wang wakes up in a car parked by the river, cold and unsatisfied in the lows of last night’s heroine high. She returns to her hotel and fights the cops who discovered her dead husband-a famous rock star, coked into an early grave. She’s a has-been VJ and a could-be musician, accused by her husband’s fans of leading him astray.

Echoes of Kurt and Courtney haunt Olivier Assayas’s “Clean,” a sad but eventually hopeful tale of a woman in a battle between drugs and love.

At the center of almost every scene is a heart-breaking, edgy performance by Maggie Cheung. As Emily, she clings to the doorjamb of sobriety, her drug habit tugging with a strength matched only by her desire to be a good mother.

Judging by the tabloids, Courtney Love-widow of suicidal grunge rocker Kurt Cobain-also struggles with motherhood?but who are we to judge? We know what we’re told or what we see, but that is only half the story.

Assayas takes an outside approach to Emily, simply watching her as she hops from country to country (Canada, France, America), landing odd jobs with the intent to prove her worth.

Everyone’s watching her, from her friends in the music industry who regard her with cautious concern to her grieving in-laws (Nick Nolte and Beatrice Dalle), who have custody of her son, Jay (James Dannis).

Emily fights her addictions, but we don’t experience the highs and the lows subjectively, as we might in a more obvious movie. (For all its merits, “Requiem for a Dream” is memorable more for its twitching, pupil-dilating editing style than its message.)

We don’t even see a moment of Emily’s six-month prison sentence for possession. When she tells her friends about her cellmate and the songs they wrote together, we wonder if she’s telling the truth or trying to convince everybody (including herself) that she’s on the road to redemption.

That disconnect between us and Emily tempts us to judge her-will she ever be a capable mother, let alone a functional member of society?-but we take a step back when she reunites with Jay and handles a crucial conversation with surprising insight.

That seems to be Assayas’ point-people are quick to judge, especially about things they really don’t know much about. We spend a whole movie with Emily, but as she continues to surprise us, we realize we’ve just scraped the surface of who she is.

If only all movie characters were this deeply satisfying.

Cigarettes taste so much better when you’re not licking chickens for crank. Maggie Cheung looks dirty and strung out in Olivier Assayas’ “Clean.”