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Down and Almost Out

When a married couple works together on a picture, the results can be devastating if their relationship falls apart during the project. In the case of Olivier Assayas directing (his now ex-wife) Maggie Cheung, the result is Clean, an impressive, emotional film with equal parts tenderness and unflinching drama.

As the lead, Cheung is just one reason to watch this film. She convincingly portrays Emily, a drugged-out rocker whose washed-up husband dies of an overdose, landing her in prison for drug possession. Upon her release, she tries to make amends with her aging, conservative in-laws (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry). While they raise her young son in Canada, she tries to resuscitate her music career, and her life, in Paris.

Cheung's bisexual, trilingual (French, English, Cantonese) Emily won her a Best Actress award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. Her haggard character is emotional and not always in control. Success hangs by a thread and her immature, snap decisions threaten to break it completely.

Nolte as her father-in-law and James Dennis as her son are real standouts. Grizzled as ever, Nolte dispenses his brand of tough love with deliberate care that's well intentioned and not preachy. Meanwhile, young Dennis talks like a real kid rather than the movie kind.

Clean shows Emily as not just as a determined woman but a flawed one too. She's hopeful, and so are we. But only if she can remain clean.

Stars: 3 out of 5 stars