France Canada Great Britain (111 mi) 2004 d: Olivier Assayas
A break-up picture, very much reflective of the personal separation of the director and his ex-wife, leading lady Maggie Cheung, who parted and went separate ways. This is a character driven film, with a terrific international cast, but not always a seamless feel. Don McKellar is Canadian, Nick Nolte is American, Maggie Cheung is Chinese but multi-lingual, and the rest of the cast is French, including the likes of Jeanne Balibar, Rémi Martin, and the always superb Béatrice Dalle. As the film is in English, it occasionally feels somewhat unworldly, yet that is the distinct intention of the film. There is a marvelous soundtrack, a trademark of Assayas, this one driven by the imagination of Brian Eno, which also includes a stab at singing by Cheung with the recording of the song, “Down in the Light” clean.wmv YouTube (2:49), very much within her character, hushed, quiet, with very spare music underneath, sounding like the personalized, early music of Nico from the Velvet Underground. This film could be her biography.
One is reminded of another film that centered around the what-about-me people in the music industry, featuring a dominant lead performance, Frances McDormand in LAUREL CANYON (2002), a film that didn’t live up to the strength of her performance. While a lot didn’t feel right here, namely any sense of naturalness in the actual sound of the words, yet overall, it was quite intense and emotionally affecting, with bits and pieces that were superb. There’s an in-your-face feel to the opening segment which lures you right into the muck and mire of the music business, a back-stabbing world of self-centered stars who believe the world revolves only around them. But the music is hypnotic, as is a live opening act performance in a dream-like Annie Lennox mold, featuring Emily Haines, a Canadian indie phenomenon, the lead singer for Metric singing the song “Dead Disco” Dead Disco - Metric - Clean - YouTube (4:33). But things fall apart instantly, leading to a momentary disconnection between a heroin-addicted couple, a fading rock star and his Yoko Ono-like-blame-her-because-she’s-pulling-you-down girl. There’s a beautiful widescreen expanse where she drives alone at night and sits in her car shooting up facing a lit up giant industrial plant in Hamilton, Ontario spewing its toxic waste into the air 24 hours a day, a metaphor for the effects of her own poison, both internal and external. When she returns, the rock star has overdosed, his career instantly takes off, accomplishing in death what he could never accomplish in life, while she’s blamed for his death and immediately sent to prison for 6 months. They have a young son, currently living with his grandparents, Nick Nolte and Martha Henry in Vancouver, and due to the potential added pain of her presence in the boy’s life, she is asked to stay away for a few years, so she flees penniless to Paris.
Eric Gautier is the cinematographer, and his hustle and bustle street shots in Paris are just filled with energy and life, the camera is never still, it keeps moving, as does Cheung at that time in her life, continually looking for anything to get her life, her career, back on track, with absolutely no success. This leads to two of the better scenes in the film, as Cheung tries to re-establish old contacts, first shooting pool with Dalle in a packed bar, as Cheung brings her a demo tape she made with another inmate while incarcerated, where the fluidity of motion is completely in balance with her fluctuating world, and the next is a near surreal, out of body experience, as she’s sitting in the waiting room to see Balibar, a cable TV executive where Cheung got her start, and her personal secretary, in a gutty and powerful appearance by Laetitia Spigarelli, starts recounting the story of Cheung’s life, including all the vivid details of an obvious infatuation. What’s brilliant about this scene is how it creates such an exact picture in our imaginations, and then takes us elsewhere. Yet the secretary’s bluntness is unforgettable, as is one of her later scenes where we see evidence of the secretary’s sexual domination of her boss. All of this leaves Cheung out in the cold, where we hear the chilling effects throughout her emotional turmoil in the repeated refrain from Brian Eno’s “An Ending (Ascent)” CLEAN (4:10), heard earlier in the industrial complex scene, a hauntingly spiritual ascension that became mesmerizing to listen to, but Cheung is startlingly and incomprehensibly rescued first by Dalle providing her a room, then by Balibar who pulls some strings to get her a low level sales job in a department store.
Meanwhile, the family in Vancouver has flown to London for special medical tests, as the grandmother’s health is deteriorating. Nolte has to come to grips with what to do with the child, as he feels unable to cope with him alone, so against his wife’s desires, as she holds Cheung responsible for her son’s death, a feeling transferred to her grandson, Nolte opens the door a crack and allows Cheung the opportunity to reunite with her son. Nolte’s feelings are key to this film, as he breaks from his wife’s fervent wishes, and he loves his wife intensely, yet without his belief in forgiveness and the possibility for change, the whole self-absorbed texture of a tortured rock star’s widow might have been different. As it is, it’s beautifully open-ended, all generated from a marvelous speech by Nolte when Cheung is finally honest with him, bravely transferring for the first time a little bit of family trust to her shoulders, with the little boy looking innocently in their direction, a heartrenderingly pure moment that is without an ounce of overreach. This allows the first breath of air for Cheung to breathe in the entire film, as she’s been on the run, frantically searching in every which direction, and Nolte actually puts his arm around her shoulder in the most surprising of moments, which finally allows her the chance for redemption. It’s just a momentary spark of recognition, without which, her life may have been emotionally shattered forever—again, a wonderful reflection of Assayas’s own personal break up with Cheung.