36 hours ago, I was prepared to say that Clean, an official selection at the 2004 Cannes Festival, was a very solid film, not quite a great one, but a satisfying-in-all-ways piece of craftsmanship. Now I find that I have forgotten much of it, or at least why it excited me so. At any rate, my mind has been going over many things about the film: its curious international pedigree (a French/Candian/U.K. co-production in English, French and Cantonese); the idiocy of making Americans wait two years for a perfectly fine film, only to drop it in the art-film wasteland of summer; but not the film itself.

Maggie Cheung (winner of Best Actress at Cannes) stars as Emily, a pop wannabe/heroin addict. As the film begins, she storms out on her common law husband, a washed-up producer, who dies of an overdose later that night. Emily ends up in jail for possession, and emerges six months later to find every conceivable door closed, and her child staying with her in-laws. She makes a deal with her father-in-law Albrecht (Nick Nolte) to set her life back in order before she can reconnect with her son.

If this sounds boilerplate, it is, and I must confess that I'd hoped for more from writer/director (and former husband of Cheung's) Olivier Assayas. Of his films, I've seen only Irma Vep, so perhaps that is the outlier and this is the true expression of his style; but I'd much prefer the post-New Wave loopiness of the earlier work to this exercise in unspectacular realism.

Or so it turns into. The first third of the movie, roughly, is fairly exciting and virtuostic. It plunks us right into the film with little exposition, and forces us to do much of the work of connecting the pieces. Which is more thrilling than a chore, given the busy handheld camera popping from place to place (the early part of the film revolves near a punk group, and the cinematography and editing are very punk themselves - raw and unrefined).

But after a while, its very Lifetime-movie, even with the sterility that implies. Although I appreciate the avoidance of heroin clichés, and the way the film sidesteps all of the usual ex-junkie plots, there seems to be precious little conflict. It's suggested that Emily's life revolves around finding her son, but the script gives no urgency: there's no reason to believe that after a reasonable time clean, Emily can't just march to Vancouver and take her son back (a late-in-the-game attempt to show that her son might not want to see her falls flat when it only lasts for a scene). This is largely because everyone is too damn nice to her: Albrecht is a sort of fleshly saint in his degree of forgiveness, and while we are frequently told that Emily faces diversity of all sorts, we're never shown it. For example, the only time it's suggested that she has a hard time finding lodging, it's in conversation with the woman who has offered her lodging.

None of this can be blamed on Cheung and Nolte, both of whom give what might well be their best performances (of course, I've not seen much of Cheung's career, but if for nothing else than her flawless balancing of languages, this is a bravura performance). Indeed, when the last half of the movie works at all, it is due almost solely to their work. Cheung projects a constant desperation that is totally absent from the script, and Nolte embodies Age - the sense of impending death and decay - with almost painful sincerity. It is for these two alone that I feel comfortable recommending this film.

One last snark: Emily's primary arc is to clean herself up by finding success as a singer. All of her pre-prison friendships were with music industry types, and she eventually can call in enough favors to get into a studio. But her singing, and her songwriting - both of which we hear throughout the film - are terrible. It's hard to sympathise with a struggling artist's inability to succeed when she deserves success so little.