Cheung plays Emily Wang, a former video jockey, who has been in a tempestuous relationship with Lee Hauser (played by James Johnston of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds), a rock musician, for several years. Lee's friends feel that Emily is bad for him, accusing her of being a junkie. As the film opens, the pair have arrived in Hamilton, Canada, to see Metric perform. Their young son, Jay, is living in Vancouver with Lee's parents.
Following an argument in their motel room, Emily walks out on Lee and, after taking some heroin, falls asleep in her car. When she returns to the motel the following morning, she finds that Lee has died of a drug overdose, and the Ontario Provincial Police are investigating. As Emily attempts to force her way into the room to see Lee, the Police find the heroin in her bag and she is arrested.
Emily spends six months in jail for possession and, upon her release, discovers that custody of her son has been awarded to Lee's parents. She resolves to return to Paris, where she used to live before meeting Lee. Before she leaves, she briefly meets with Albrecht, Lee's father (played by Nick Nolte) who tells her that he would prefer that she not see Jay for a few years.
Emily begins work in a Chinese restaurant in Paris for some relatives but does not enjoy it. She has become addicted to methadone and her friends try to ensure that she can get prescriptions for the drug.
Meanwhile, Lee's mother, Rosemary (played by Martha Henry) falls ill and she and Albrecht travel to London with Jay, so that she can receive medical treatment. While they are there, Albrecht decides to bring Jay to Paris to meet with Emily, but the boy has been told by his grandmother that Emily was responsible for his father's death and does not want to see her.
Emily eventually decides that she must try to get clean in order to be able to spend more time with her son. She stops taking methadone and prepares for Jay's arrival. When the boy eventually meets his mother, she takes him to a zoo and explains to him about her relationship with his father and why they took drugs.
Emily also dreams of pursuing a career as a singer; and, when she is finally granted the opportunity after meeting a fellow musician in prison, she must make some serious decisions about her life.Maggie Cheung as Emily Wang
Nick Nolte as Albrecht Hauser
Béatrice Dalle as Elena, a friend of Emily
Jeanne Balibar as Irene Paolini, Emily's former employer
Emily Haines as Herself
Assayas and Cheung met during the making of Irma Vep in 1996. They married in 1998 and divorced in 2001. Clean was their first collaboration since the divorce.
The songs that Maggie Cheung performs in the film were written and produced by David Roback of Mazzy Star. The soundtrack also features songs by Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Emily Haines, Metric, The Notwist, Britta Phillips and Tricky.
- Brian Eno — An Ending
- Maggie Cheung — Strawberry Stain
- Brian Eno — Taking Tiger Mountain
- Tricky & Liz Densmore — Breakaway
- Maggie Cheung — Down in the Light
- Metric — Dead Disco
- Brian Eno — Spider and I
- The Notwist — Neon Golden
- Maggie Cheung — Wait for Me
- Britta Phillips — Knives from Bavaria
- Maggie Cheung — She Can't Tell You
- Metric — Dead Disco (Live)
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a rating of 72% based on 65 reviews and an average rating of 6.6/10. The consensus statement reads, "In one of her best roles, Cheung gives a believable and arresting performance as a recovering addict." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 75 out of 100 based on 28 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".