Friday, June 5, 2009


Is there a job in the world more thankless than being the wife of a dead rock star? Now, admittedly, I don't know the wives of many dead rock stars, so I can't really speak for their personalities in real life, but from the press, they get a rough ride. Yoko Ono is constantly accused of killing the Beatles and exploiting her late husband's memory. Courtney Love gets an even worse treatment, as conspiracy theorists are constantly claiming she killed her husband. Mrs. Rock Star, especially if they're married to an icon, is never treated with very much respect.

So, we have Clean, in which Maggie Cheung is pitched somewhere between Love and Ono on the star wife scale. She plays Emily Wang, wife of down on his luck rock star Lee and heroin enthusiast. She's trying to get her husband a better deal, and they are at a Metric show in order to do something music-business-y. Also, director (and Cheung's ex-husband, awkward) Oliver Assayas is constantly shooting singer Emily Haines' knees, which is very odd. Anyway, eventually, they fight, she runs out and does some drugs down by the river, while her husband has a big overdose in their motel room.

So, Lee dies, Cheung is sent to prison for drug possession, and their son Jay lives with grizzled father of Lee, Albrecht, played by Nick Nolte. The story picks up when Cheung leaves prison and has to figure out how to clean up and get her life together, in a world where everyone hates her and blames her for her husband's untimely demise. We watch as all of her friends abandon her and she can't get her way out of the hole she's dug. Nobody likes Cheung, because everyone liked Lee.

It's a redemption story, essentially, and it humanizes the wives of important people. No wonder Courtney Love is a drug addled skank, she's got to do something to drown out how nobody likes her. No wonder Yoko Ono's kind of annoying, actually I think she's annoying naturally. I've heard her records. Still, I've got to say I respect her a whole hell of a lot more, realizing what she must go through daily.

The world against Cheung is, luckily, quite subtle. We hear of press being extremely negative, and we can see people constantly snubbing her or assuming she's a smelly old junkie. Even her son doesn't like her, though he does provide an opportunity for a speech about how drug addicts can't help themselves.

Still, it makes one think about the real people behind the stories on supermarket tabloids, more than anything more explicit possibly could. There was a smart move making Lee a struggling, but somewhat popular musician. People know him and his wife, but they're not so famous that they are constantly harassed. Thus, the attacks on Cheung are more personality, and it also allows her to blend into Paris when necessary. He's no longer a star, but he is famous enough to get some classy reissues and be well known.

It helps that the movie had mostly good music (though Cheung's singing is on the Ono end of the spectrum), and is beautifully shot. Through Assayas' camera, industrial sprawl doesn't seem so bad. Yes, there are some distinctly odd shots - I mentioned the knees, didn't I? - but overall it's a very attractive film, with a lovely score and good acting.

One can argue that it reflects on a problem in society where if a man is famous, his wife can't appear to be involved in his career at all. To put it simply, the husbands of female stars don't seem to have this problem, that prince the Grace Kelly married actually stopped her career, and nobody ever talks about him being a horrible destroyer of talent, at least that I've seen. But, more than anything, it's about how a woman has to shake off something that ruined her life, and eventually get clean and go back to her child. It's just that her problems are made more difficult by association.

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