With her discomfitingly sensual singing routine and ravenous desire for attention, Sherry is every parent's worst nightmare, yet Gyllenhaal's emotionally and physically naked performance and Laurie Collyer's empathetic direction etch her into reality. You want to take care of this sad, sexy mum.
On another continent and aeons away in awareness, Cheung's Emily is also a junkie who landed in jail after her rock star boyfriend, Lee Hauser, OD'd but she's now working her way back into the good graces of her child and family. Resembling a razor-sharp noirish Q-Tip with a shock of black fro, music biz hanger-on Emily evokes obvious predecessors (the derided Asian-other and band destroyer Yoko Ono, the stoned-in-love partner in crime Marianne Faithfull) and less-expected women (delicate beauty with a battery-acid rasp Hope Sandoval). The archetypal snide rock bitch at the start, Emily waxes selfish, proud, mouthy, brawling, irresponsible, bad tempered, only reflexively working her power over Lee her real hunger is for the next fix. Cheung, however, gives Emily a heart when her mouth twists into a dreadful pyramid upon hearing that the court has given custody of her son to Lee's parents.
Still, throughout the process of getting clean, growing humble, and peeling away the layers of posturing, Emily exudes a resigned intelligence that the fearless but somewhat unconscious Sherry lacks. Tearful with loneliness, Emily confesses to her friend Elena (France's favorite wild woman, Beatrice Dalle), "I don't know if I can take care of a child." Almost everyone in Clean is smarter than they appear at first glance, even if they are embroiled in the "romantic myth of music," as director Olivier Assayas puts it in a DVD interview. Emily's race complicates matters further, raising questions similar to those aimed at world-trawling Western adoptive parents. Are the white middle-class Hausers more entitled to raise Cheung's son than she is? Must she become trustworthy or assimilate in order to be with her child?
Both Cheung's and Gyllenhaal's performances make one wonder why these women's struggles are reaching the screen at this time. We continue to grapple with the question of whether single parenting translates to less-than-optimal parenting. Perhaps, as the war pigs and an archetypally male principle run rampant elsewhere, we wonder how we're supposed to keep the home fires burning. Where are the mothers, and how does one nurture after all the high times? Can we, perpetual adolescents, ever really settle down? Who raised all these people? *
KIMBERLY CHUN'S LADY FEAST 11
• Ivana Baquero in Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, Spain) and Ko Ah-sung Ko in The Host (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea).
• Clean (Olivier Assayas, France) and Sherrybaby (Laurie Collyer, US).
• The Descent (Neil Marshall, UK). A postfeminist love song to spelunking and Carrie.
• Linda Linda Linda (Nobuhiro Yamashita, Japan). The Ramones would be proud.
• The Queen (Stephen Frears, UK/France/Italy), with lady-in-waiting Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, US/France/Japan). Feeling those royal pains.
• The Science of Sleep (Michel Gondry, France/Italy). Charlotte Gainsbourg makes spectacles, sweater dresses, and felt-mation look trés belle.
• Lady Vengeance (Park Chan-wook, South Korea). Red eyeliner, exploitation glam, and that scene with the grieving, vengeful parents ...
• Volver (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain). Making us love Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, eyeliner, and push-up bras again.