‘Clean’/’Patti Smith: Dream of Life’

Riding the horse, beating the drugs


To feel “clean,” if you’re a junkie, is to be in a state free of addiction, but more than that, it also implies a clean slate, a life wiped clean of its past temptations, joys and pain, in order to allow new beginnings to emerge.

This is the state Maggie Cheung will find herself in by the end of Olivier Assayas’ “Clean,” but Lord, what it takes to get to that point.

Maggie (“Hero,” “In The Mood For Love”) plays Emily, an all-attitude rock chick who envisions herself as rock ‘n’ roll royalty, despite the decidedly low-rent existence that she and her singer husband, Lee (James Johnston of The Bad Seeds), must endure.

Lee is 42, touring small clubs, staying in cheap motels, and thinking his new album sucks. Emily is convinced that backstabbers blame her bad influence, which includes a heroin habit, for Lee’s problems. When she blows up at Lee’s manager (Don McKellar) about some imaginary deal with Dreamworks, she’s chewing her gum with a fury that could grind quartz crystals into a fine powder. (Which, no doubt, she would promptly snort up.)

After a huge row with Lee, Emily drives off and shoots up in an empty industrial district, as smoke and flame dance across the river and Brian Eno’s “Ascent” (from his “Apollo” album) rises on the soundtrack — its otherworldly quality hinting at what’s to come, while also suggesting the temporary tranquillity of her high.

Director Olivier Assayas
Run Time 110 minutes
Language English
Patti Smith: Dream of Life
Director Steven Sebring
Run Time 109 minutes
Language English

Emily awakens from her nod, drives back to the motel and is busted for possession by cops who have shown up. And it’s only when she’s handcuffed and trapped in the back of a patrol car that she sees her dead husband’s body being carted off under a tarp.

“Just leave me in peace” were his last words before she stormed off, and Emily has plenty of time to consider that cruel irony in prison.

After serving her time, Emily is released and meets Albrecht (Nick Nolte), Lee’s father. He’s sympathetic, but also adamant that Lee and Emily’s young son, Jay (James Dennis), stay with them. Emily agrees that she’s not fit to be a parent, and moves back to Paris, where she gets on methadone, works lousy jobs, and flirts with the catty, glamorous, drug-filled music world she once knew, meeting both bad influences like the wicked Irene (Jeanne Balibar) and solid, reliable friends like Elena (the incomparable Beatrice Dalle). Assayas ups the real-world feel of the scene by including real rock stars in his cast, like Tricky, Metric, and guitarist David Roback of Mazzy Star (who also produced the songs Maggie sings in the film.)

She soon comes to realize that something’s missing, though, and it’s Jay. Soon she’s begging Albrecht to let her see him, and Albrecht — despite his wife’s dislike of “that woman” — is inclined to work out some arrangement. But can he trust Emily? Is she really clean?

With “Clean,” Assayas gives us his most straightforward, heartfelt film, avoiding the icy cynicism that has infected so much of contemporary European art cinema, from Michael Haneke to Lars von Trier. It displays a faith in compromise, understanding, and compassion that’s notably optimistic these days. Nolte, with his warm growl, puts it best: “People change. When they need to, they change.”

Still, there’s an undertone of loss here that never completely goes away. At film’s end, Emily is in the studio with Roback, recording the songs she wrote in prison, she’s on the road to reconciliation with her son and father-in-law, and she’s clean. Everything’s going well, but when she leaves the studio for a break, she just sobs her eyes out until there are no more tears. Yes, she’s clean, but on one level, nothing will ever be right again. One is never so clean that past pain heals entirely.

If Patti Smith were ever to meet Emily, she’d have some advice for her, that which she was given by poet Allen Ginsberg when her husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, died in 1994: “Let go of the spirit of the departed, and continue your life’s celebration.” Easier said than done, I thought, while watching “Patti Smith: Dream of Life,” an elliptical documentary on the punk-poet icon who rose to fame in New York City’s new wave scene in the 1970s.

Smith, now aged 62, has dealt with death throughout her life; notably the deaths of her younger brother and her best friend Robert Mapplethorpe, as well as her husband. All left deep marks, as recounted by Smith in this intimate film, made over a 10-year span with filmmaker Steven Sebring. And yet Smith has managed to revive her career and perform with the same ferocity as in her youth.

Smith is appealingly candid about her life, but Sebring seems so determined to avoid the linearity of your typical rock doc that he ends up with a rambling mess of a film that feels perilously close to being just an arty home-movie, albeit one where Michael Stipe or Philip Glass might pop up.

The film rambles on in an unfocused way, with Smith’s son, Jackson, a gawky teenager in one scene and an adult playing guitar in his mom’s band in the next. A visit to Japan is filled out with obligatory shots of the leather-clad rockers dancing at Yoyogi Park in the Tokyo district of Harajuku; and Smith’s face is so often covered by her disheveled hair, we have little access to her feelings. For believers only.