Sometimes there's nothing more terrifying than a second chance. ``Clean," a parting gift from French filmmaker Olivier Assayas to his ex-wife, Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung, is a getting-straight movie where the junkie trembles with guilt, self-hatred, and a cleansing hope against hope.
It's a globe-trotting drama with more than a touch of Wim Wenders whim to it. Beginning in Hamilton, Ontario -- where the party-girl days of Emily Wang (Cheung) screech to a halt when her famous rocker husband (James Johnston) overdoses in a motel room -- and subsequently jetting to London, Paris, Vancouver, and San Francisco, ``Clean" has the same mixture of human tenderness and borderline-silly Eurochic that marks Wenders films like ``Until the End of the World."
The difference is that Wenders wants to save humanity, while Assayas (``Irma Vep," ``Demonlover" ) just wonders if Emily can save herself. Indeed, we're meant to question whether she's even worth the bother. The way Cheung plays the role -- in a bold departure from her repressed Su Li-Zhen in Wong Kar- Wai's ``In the Mood for Love" -- Emily is the Courtney Love of the international set, a high-maintenance rock wife who ruined her husband's career with heroin and who bought him his fatal fix. There's a lot here to hate.
But there's also a child: the couple's young son, Jay (James Dennis), who lives outside of Vancouver with his grandparents, Rosemary (Martha Henry) and Albrecht (Nick Nolte). After the headlines die down and Emily gets out of a six-month stay in jail, Albrecht informs her that while Jay is legally hers to take, the grandparents intend to keep him for the time being. Something in the old man's voice prompts both her respect and ours.
Besides, Emily has to return to Paris to regroup -- to decide whether growing up is something she can even manage. ``Clean" follows the character through menial jobs, pharmaceutical backsliding, groveling for favors from friends in high places. Very slowly, her worst excesses start to fall away; when she stops thinking only of herself, she's startled to find that she can think only of her son.
As a tale of redemption, this is hardly unusual -- it happens in life almost as often as it happens in the movies -- but Assayas tries to goose matters with busy camerawork and a large, unfocused cast that signifies hipness above all else. The British rapper/electronica wizard Tricky plays himself, as does David Roback, the mastermind behind the '90s drone-rock group Mazzy Star ; Beatrice Dalle (``Betty Blue") brings her big-lipped bonhomie to the role of Emily's only remaining friend, while Jeanne Balibar and Laetitia Spigarelli hover around the edges as a pair of music industry lipstick lesbians. At times, ``Clean" feels like a Lifetime movie produced by Benetton.
Assayas knows how to work an ambient mood, though (not for nothing is the soundtrack overflowing with early Brian Eno music), and he's aided immensely by Nolte's performance as a grizzled old soul who doesn't know how not to be kind, even to the woman responsible for his son's death. The actor has rarely seemed so empathetic as in scenes where Albrecht has to coax both Jay and Emily into seeing her as a potentially responsible adult. Cheung does the showier work here -- she won best actress at Cannes for the role -- but Nolte gives the richer performance.
``Clean" has more than a few awkward patches. Assayas's English-language dialogue can sound forced, especially when secondary characters stand around uttering undigested chunks of exposition. Cheung's singing voice is wan, to put it kindly. In the end, the director may simply be better at the meta-cinematic head games of ``Demonlover" than at filming shared reality.
Or perhaps he's using Emily as a metaphor and a confession -- a way to acknowledge that other people are worth more than narrative self-absorption. With ``Clean," the rare Assayas movie with a linear plot and semi-conventional characters, the director may be announcing he's off the hard stuff.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.