Clean (2004) by Olivier Assayas

February 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Clean (2004) is my first film by contemporary filmmaker Olivier Assayas. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw it at Gramophone one evening and bought it without much thought.

A similar impulse infects the film; most obviously in the quick shifting cinematography and in the spontaneous yet structured framework of the film. There is a whiff of lightness permeating the film which I enjoyed a lot. I was initially disappointed that it wasn’t going to turn out like one of the hard-hitting films like Biutiful (2010) but grew to appreciate it to a point of endearment.

One of my favourite actresses of late is Naomi Watts, largely because of how quickly she can snap from one end of the spectrum to another. Think of how she turned from eager-eyed to deranged junkie lookalike in Mulholland Drive (2001). Or how she quickly she transformed into a junkie (again) from that caring mother in 21 grams (2003). Maggie Cheung is second to her in this film. While she didn’t appear too convincing initially with her English accents, Olivier’s fine directing sold her to me. I loved 2 particular moments in the film, which I felt were moments only cinema could convey – one being the way she looked at the passing ambulance after Lee (her husband) died and the other being how she broke down towards the end of the film. Such nuanced performances are rare and so beautiful.

There is a certain looseness about Clean that I feel is very characteristic of French films. I am even more convinced of this after discovering how Assayas used to write for Cahiers du cinema before becoming a filmmaker. Structurally, the protagonist constantly goes through obstacles in her quest to turn clean. Yet, this is never made too predictable or overly terse. Assayas gives us just enough space within the diegesis of the film to wonder what is going on, and this fine balance is masterful.

Music infuses itself deep into the vein of the film. This clearly seen on the story level, where the Emily (Maggie Cheung) and her husband Lee fight over the latter’s ailing musical career, and then towards the end where Maggie herself tries to cut out an album with her ex-prison mate Gloria in San Francisco. Yet, music is deep within the cinematography and pacing of the film, which is why this seemingly ordinary story made it to Cannes. I really loved the hand-held treatment of this film and the amazing freedom the focus puller gave to the camera operator. My favourite shots are mostly of Emily walking past heavy traffic in Paris and moments after she got off the train in Paris. One of the best executed shots were of her working in her uncle’s Chinese restaurant in Paris.

Speaking of Chinese restaurants, the film features a generous amount of supers that introduce us to the time and space of each international locale. This isn’t used in the same way a director might in say a James Bond movie, but more to display a certain international fervour in Assayas treatment of the film. Does this have to do with Assayas love for Asian cultures and all things international (he wrote a twin issue in Cahiers on Hong Kong cinema and was once married to Maggie Cheung)? I don’t really know, but it is certainly something to take note of.

In a 1999 interview in ArtForum, he [Olivier Assayas] described it [Chinese treatment of cinematic time] as involving “a particular way of describing time, of describing the progression of action: you’ll have fragments of the same reality, and sometimes time is not moving.”

Maybe.

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