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Clean (2004/I)
12 out of 23 people found the following review useful:
In the Mood for a Virtuosic Performance, 25 July 2005

Against a landscape of industrial detritus, autumnal junkyards and chemical cenotaphs, Maggie Chung implodes. She doesn't lose it with decorous resignation, as she did in familiar masterpieces by Wong Kar-Wai and Stanley Kwan. Instead, she insults and jostles her way to the bottom, ditching the reticence that constrained her in nearly every other film she's made.

Seldom heard until now, her clipped British English is underscored at first by breakneck speech-rhythms, cadences en route to a crackup: these telegraph the destructive impatience of her character. A procession of gas stations, wheezing old cars and stained Formica desks follows, terminating in contracts signed with descending water-spray scribbles. The Eno-dependent score draws on _Another Green World_, the visuals, _Paris, Texas_.

Her heroin/death crash gives way to temporary calm, which is jostled into verbal violence again after her character moves to Paris. That setting is where her character seems most natural and believable: berating and brushing away friends in a culture peculiarly disposed to viewing argumentativeness as courage and social dysfunction as passion.

Chung's addict isn't always N.A.-accurate, but her delineation of the role she was asked to play borders on virtuosic. Much as one loves seeing Chung embody the perfect suffering torch-song icon in films like Center Stage and In the Mood for Love, it is thrilling to hear her claim other languages, styles and emotional idioms as her own. Even her singing is antithetical to the voice of her earlier characters. And it isn't an accident that she is cast against a restrained Nick Nolte, who portrayed a raging drunk so affectingly in _Affliction_, and a complacent bohemian Béatrice Dalle, whose superficially flawed gap-toothed beauty and eccentric portrayals have provided temporary pleasure in so many dystopian films.

Despite Clean's hoary conceit -- heroin weaning as spiritual redemption -- the cinematography is beautiful and evocative, particularly the landscape pans. As in Drugstore Cowboy, one feels the drugs and the music to be an arbitrary pretext for a film that is actually about something else.

The music references are embarrassing. Particularly wince-making are repeated references to Mazzy Star, since that's who Chung's character is intended to resemble (could the director have been more obvious?). The model isn't surprising, given Chung's orientation: One way to get a convincing performance out of a non-singer is to develop a character voice -- in this case, something deadpan and breathy, with almost no vibrato. Even so, the director's lack of finesse is revealed insofar as Mazzy Star's name is mentioned at all -- let alone repeated and underlined by two different characters.

Chung plays a vintage failed rock singer well in the San Francisco studio, with her careless beaten unbranded leather, AKG K-240 headphones, Neumann TLM-103 caged mike, pop filter (though she doesn't need one) and groggy swaying motion. Even so, it's Chung's mastery of her character's pacing that seems most musical, not the voice she musters or the blues dirge she happens to sing. One wonders what Nicholas Roeg would have to say about her, um, performance.

As always with Chung, the emotional repression of the character is what makes her breakdown so affecting. In work that is elegiac, one always wants the tears to come slowly: talking oneself out of them, bracing oneself, is what forces emotion to surface in the end.

54 out of 60 people found the following review useful:
Ravishing attention to nuance; pity about the tone., 1 June 2004

Recently, I saw the film Pornografia at the Walter Reade Theater. This offering by Polish director Jan Kolski is an adaptation of Wiltold Gombrowicz's difficult novel, in which minute sensory information is invested with meaning and sutured into intricate causal patterns that reflect the protagonist's paranoia.

So much of the narrative takes place in the main character's head that I'd thought the story impossibly non-cinematic. Yet Kolski manages to bring in several levels of nuance and rarefied metaphor. What's more, said nuances become sensual and aesthetic.

Unfortunately, what Kolski leaves out of the film is the tone of the book, which reads like Beckett's version of Dangerous Liaisons. The film feels too elegiac, too post-tragic, even overtly moralistic -- it's as if the director were trying to correct Gombrowicz's narrator's amoral tone. This change creates unintentional ambiguities, flaws that don't exist in the book: for example, it is unclear why the two main characters turn against one of younger characters in the story. In the film, the main characters seem too ethical, too sensitive, to behave as they do. In the novel, their cynicism and casual sadism are everywhere apparent.

In the theater, I perceived a number of Polish members of the audience to be weeping at key moments; it occurred to me that the loss of a son or daughter was so commonplace in that country at one time that the film might have had an indigenous impact -- one that a third- or second-generation American would miss without clarification. Thus I'm not ready to dismiss the film as unclear or sentimental without knowing more.

(For the record, neither the novel nor the film resembles Schindler's List; neither are about a concentration camp. And even if they were, Spielberg's melodrama is not the gold standard to which other holocaust films should be compared. Far earlier and better specimens exist, such as those by Louis Malle, Alain Resnais and Claude Lanzmann.)