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Cinema for cinema's sake, but is anyone buying?

Maggie's pharm 

Cinema for cinema's sake, but is anyone buying?

click to enlarge Maggie Cheung as Emily in Olivier Assayas' Clean - PHOTO COURTESY OF PALM PICTURES
  • Photo courtesy of Palm Pictures
  • Maggie Cheung as Emily in Olivier Assayas' Clean

The French film Clean unfolds mostly in English and stars a Hong Kong actress who speaks French, English and Cantonese and an American actor who speaks Noltese. Meanwhile, the action in the film moves from Vancouver to Paris to London to San Francisco. Clean may be as international as international gets--even in the time of the World Cup--but it really gets started where so many rock 'n' roll lives end: on the threadbare carpet of a crappy North American motel, with an empty syringe nearby and the cops roping off the room.

On the floor of the room is Lee, a washed-up rocker, once famous but now succumbing to drugs, lazy work habits and an indifferent public. His lover is Emily (Maggie Cheung, the Catherine Deneuve of Hong Kong), who is resented by Lee's few remaining fans as being the agent of his demise--a bit of a usurping Yoko Ono. In fact, Emily has her own problem with heroin, but on the night that Lee dies, she's off shooting up on her own in a parking lot. Emily and Lee have a son, but as they're clearly not up to parenthood, the child is being raised by Lee's parents in Vancouver.

It's hard to think of many good junkie movies, and for much of its running time, Clean doesn't look to be very different from other movies about recovery. Emily does a turn in prison for drug possession and then resolves to clean up her life and earn the right to raise her son. The child's grandfather (played by Nick Nolte), meanwhile, finds that he has a vested interest in seeing Emily clean up, because his wife is dying and he doubts his own ability to be a single parent to his grandson.

Clean seems rather conventional in its moral preoccupations from the outset, but in turns it becomes more subtle, more surprising and, frankly, more upsetting. The decidedly non-maternal Emily turns to her friends for help in getting back on her feet, but they're in a poor position to keep her on the straight and narrow, and Emily can't abide the humiliation of working for her family's Chinese restaurant. When Emily returns to her native Paris, a subtle series of power plays unfolds. We gather that Emily had been a minor pop television celebrity in her younger days, and also that she had mistreated people along the way. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, her frienemies take poorly-hidden pleasure in her fallen fortunes.

Clean represents a welcome return to emotional directness for Olivier Assayas, who might be the smartest director who hasn't yet produced a great feature film. He's an intellectual who sips his café on Rue de Jean-Luc Godard, and he recently helped collect the films of Situationist philosopher Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle) into a three-DVD boxed set. Despite his misfortune to be making high cinema in an era that is largely indifferent to the notion, Assayas' work nonetheless remains engaged with the history of film and the present state of our global culture.

But his films are a mixed bag. I confess to not remembering more than a minute or so of the three Masterpiece Theatre hours of Les Destinées, but more successful was Demonlover, a brave stab at cybersex and corporate skullduggery that featured some serious bitchslapping between Connie Nielsen, Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon. On the plus side of the ledger, Assayas' best work includes the Rohmer-influenced Late August, Early September, a moving portrait of academics turning gray and wondering where it went wrong--with the cooings of Stereolab on the soundtrack.

My own favorite, however, is Cold Water, a bite-sized feature about a brief, doomed relationship between a privileged high school boy and a trouble-prone girl from the wrong side of town. Janis Joplin's rendition of "Me and Bobby McGee" provided the accompaniment to this unforgettable movie that, sadly, remains unavailable on video in the United States.

But the film that relates most closely to Clean is called Irma Vep, a film Assayas made with Maggie Cheung as his star back in 1996. It was probably Assayas' closest brush with a wide audience in the States, and it reflected his interest in the very beginnings of French history as well as the excitement people felt over Hong Kong movies in the mid-1990s. (Cheung and Assayas got married after Irma Vep. They divorced after a couple of years, so Clean represents an unusual reunion for the pair.) Although the subject matter of the two films is quite different, they both deal with artistic romanticism and cultural nostalgia.

Assayas, too, seems to be feeling nostalgic for last century, both in his casting choices--in addition to his ex-wife, there is Béatrice Dalle, forever best known for Betty Blue--and his musical references. Tricky makes a small but crucial appearance, as does David Roback of Mazzy Star. (The 21st century is represented by Metric, the Canadian Yeah Yeah Yeahs, in a generously filmed concert sequence.)

Although Clean ultimately feels erratic in its emphases, it finally delivers a powerful and unexpected punch of an ending, one that is ambiguous and unsettling, and one that suggests that heroin isn't the only drug Emily needs to kick.

click to enlarge Not just another Holocaust movie, Fateless is available on DVD
  • Not just another Holocaust movie, Fateless is available on DVD

It's painful to ponder the fate of Fateless, a film that slipped in and out of Cary's Galaxy Cinema last weekend (and one weekend last month, during the Triangle Jewish Film Festival). While Fateless is only the second best Hungarian Holocaust movie (after István Szabó's Sunshine), it was a strangely beautiful, serene and stoic take on the Shoah.

While Holocaust movies are a difficult sell, one wishes that the Triangle had an art house culture that was strong enough to support a film like Fateless for more than a handful of screenings. (The Galaxy projected the film on their digital projector three times last weekend, and there was only one other person in the audience at the screening I attended.) As it happens, Fateless is a finely wrought film that manages to justify its place on a shelf groaning with Holocaust titles.

Like every other Holocaust movie, Fateless walks us through the accelerating calamity and shows us railroad tracks, smokestacks and Jews being herded off to Auschwitz. Holocaust movies are in danger of becoming their own genre, and as a result, the question needs to be asked of each film with increasing insistence: What do you have that's new? In the case of Lajos Koltai's film, adapted from a novel by 2002 Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertész, what we have is first and foremost a remarkably contained visual mode of expression, with nary a hurried or rushed shot. The palette fades into gray the deeper the film descends into the Shoah, and then turns into saturated Life magazine color upon liberation.

But the film's difficulty is in its representation of what I take to be a fatalistic conception of the horror. Fateless opens in a Budapest world that will very shortly disappear. It is 1944 and the film's narrator, György, tells us that his father has been summoned to a work camp. György will soon follow, and the once-pampered lad stumbles through the experience as if it were a particularly long nightmare. While his fellow sufferers confront adversity in ways ranging from abject submission to petty power plays to outright revolt, György simply shuffles along. In the end, it seems that there is little correlation between individual moral agency and one's chances of survival.

I'm still puzzling over the film's title. I think it's a rejection of the inevitability of persecution and an embrace of existential freedom. Of course, I could be wrong. One thing I do know is that this haunting but barely seen film should have been able to find a bigger local audience.

  • Cinema for cinema's sake, but is anyone buying?

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