Dir/scr: Olivier Assayas.France/Canada 2004. 80 mins.

Like his film's heroine,French director Olivier Assayas returns to the straight and narrow in Clean,an emotionally fluent drama that is a world removed from his last film, theexperimental cyber-thriller Demonlover. Another predominantlyEnglish-language venture, Clean sees Assayas working again with Asianstar and ex-wife Maggie Cheung for the first time since 1996's Irma Vep. Cheung's tough, vanity-freeperformance - which won her the Best Actress prize in Cannes - gives weight toa film that is compelling if not quite satisfying dramatically.

Cheung's profile, arelatively linear storyline and an overall cachet of alternative-rock chicshould make Clean an appealing prospect for buyers prepared to venture alittle (but not too far) off-mainstream. Assayas's festival following mightwonder why he has abandoned the headier left-field climes of previous work, butdespite a mixed Cannes reception, Clean should help repair his profileafter the harshly-received Demonlover.

Another typicallycosmopolitan venture for Assayas, Clean starts in the unwelcomingindustrial landscape of Hamilton, Ontario, where fading cult rocker Lee Hauser(real-life muso Johnston) is on tour, accompanied by partner and fellow heroin-addictEmily (Cheung).

When Lee dies of anoverdose, Emily has a spell in jail, then visits her father-in-law Albrecht(Nolte), who proposes that her and Lee's young son Jay (Dennis) will be betteroff staying with his grandparents. Emily returns to Paris, where she hopes tore-launch her previous TV career, only to be turned down by cable exec Irene (acatty, elegantly scene-stealing Balibar). Determined to clean up, Emily triesto win back her son and start a new life.

On paper, Clean couldalmost be a made-for-TV weepie, but it takes its distinctive edge fromAssayas's intelligently detached stance and refusal to join the narrative dots.Significantly, we never see the withdrawal sequence that would have been adramatic high point in a conventional treatment of the theme. Some will regardAssayas's elliptical approach as a cop-out, but he evokes a vivid sense ofEmily's fragmented existence.

The film convincinglydemystifies the marginal rock milieu where artists of moderate talent existprecariously on the hope of patronage. After Lee's death, his record companycashes in on his old material, but the resulting revenue will only be enough tosettle Emily's debuts and pay for her fare home.

A telling sequence has hertrying to make contact with British musician Tricky (briefly seen in concert)and getting a chilly brush-off. Also playing himself is American musician DavidRoback, while Emily Haines and her band Metric contribute an abrasive concertsequence.

Clean thrives on a set of brief but telling performancesfrom a diverse cast - including Don McKellar as Lee's disenchanted manager, anunusually warm and low-key Beatrice Dalle, and newcomer Laetitia Spigarelli.Cheung, looking haggard and altogether unglamorous, pitches her Emily astroubled but sane, and nothing like the diva we initially perceive. Thestandout presence, however, is Nolte's, as Emily's simpatico father-in-law, hismost tender and controlled performance in years.

Eric Gautier contributeshard, unshowy cinematography that just occasionally takes on a heightenedpoetic slant - notably, an industrial skyline on which one chimney suddenlyspouts flames as Emily shoots up. In a soundtrack of mixed rock material,Assayas uses vintage Brian Eno songs as effectively as Nanni Moretti did in TheSon's Room.

Prod cos: Rectangle Productions, Haystack Productions (UK),Rhombus Media, Arte France Cinema
Fr dist:
ARP Selection
Int'l sales:
The Works
Edouard Weil, XavierGiannoli, Xavier Marchand, Niv Fichman
Eric Gautier
Prod des:
Francois-RenaudLabarthe, Bill Flemming
Luc Barnier
David Roback, Tricky
Main cast:
Maggie Cheung, NickNolte, Beatrice Dalle, James Dennis, Don McKellar, Jeanne Balibar, JamesJohnston, Martha Henry, Laetitia Spigarelli