Emily and Lee have a young son who is cared for by Lee's parents, Albrecht (Nick Nolte) and Rosemary (Martha Henry) who live in Vancouver. Once Emily gets out of jail she doesn't insist on gaining custody of her son, which she has every right to do, but she would like to get her life back together to the point that she can see him again. She heads to Paris to start a new life but she has a tough time because of a methadone habit she started in jail.
The film, directed by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, is not so much about drugs and rock and roll [although it has that] so much as a film about a woman trying to 'clean' up her life. Once out of jail Emily decides to pursue the dream of getting a record contract. But due to her age and her seemingly few contacts she is unable to break into the industry.
Albrecht, her father in law, is an understanding and patient man. At first he won't let Emily see her son but he is willing to do what he can to help her out. She writes him a letter stating her intentions and he is moved to the point that while in England with Rosemary - who is hospitalized there - that he considers letting her see her son.
The drama unfolds from there is a slow but sure way.
Clean should be seen if only because it stars Maggie Cheung [who won best actress at Cannes for her role] and Nick Nolte. How many chances does one get to see such an interesting pairing of actors from completely different film industries? It's almost like a DC comic book hero meeting one from the Marvel universe.
Clean was shot in Canada, England, France and the United States. But despite all the locations and languages it plays quite smoothly because it is a very well written, directed and acted. The characters fit their roles quite well and the story – while not too harrowing or tragic – is involving enough to keep the viewer interested.
Director Assayas - who also directed demonlover and Les Destinées sentimentales - is arguably one of the best independent filmmakers in the world today. He has great control over the mise-en-scene, and as a writer he explores character development as well as any screenwriter. So the question is; "how come Clean has yet to be released in the United States?" Part of the reason, I believe, is because Maggie Cheung is not a household name in the West like she is in the East. Plus, Nick Nolte's name can't carry a movie these days. Most importantly, perhaps, the film doesn't have the same angle of Assayas's last two movies. Demonlover had sex, violence and intrigue while Les Destinees fit the French-period-piece drama that does will in the U.S.
Despite all of this Clean is a really good understated drama that - while perhaps a bit too sincere - is heartfelt and worth a look.