The humanistic, traditionally shot and edited drama Clean is a far cry from director Olivier Assayas' previous collaboration with actress Maggie Cheung, the off-the-wall deconstructionist Irma Vep. The compositions are uncluttered with a geometric attention to shapes and lines which, combined with the lighting, accentuates the effect of modern industrial architecture. The landscape is reminiscent of Scandinavia or the Netherlands, and although the film takes place in Canada, Paris, and London, this seems deliberate given the stark personal story contained within. (And Assayas' love of Ingmar Bergman.) The gray-blue backdrop that the lead character, recovering heroic addict Emily (Cheung), inhabits could represent the cold harshness of the uncaring world in which she must build her life and her tough, emotionally guarded way of doing so. It could also show a refreshing eagerness not to wallow in the excessively decadent visual clichés of a hundred other movies about heroin addicts in order to emphasize the emotional over the physical. Emily's desire to be with her son, Jay (James Dennis), is conveyed through brief silent gestures. While anticipating a weekend visit from him, a shot showing Emily preparing his bed, taken from outside the bedroom, touchingly captures the frustrated love coursing through her veins. What at first seems like unemotional behavior becomes a sign of deep inner strength. Occasionally the film is too reserved. Like Emily, Clean opens and closes its emotional valves at its own choosing, and not always where it should. The ending, wherein Emily sings a self-penned song in a recording studio, should be the denouement of this character, when we sense to the truest extent what this character has emotionally been through. Afterwards everyone around her seems to think she's done a great job and Emily acts exhausted, but the scene feels underplayed to a fault and tarnishes Cheung's otherwise wonderfully intimate performance. Emily's character, and Cheung's portrayal, is enhanced by Nick Nolte's pitch-perfect embodiment of her ex-husband Lee's father Albrecht. Nolte's grizzled warmth exudes love, patience, responsibility, and hard-won wisdom -- he's the ideal adult in a film where 40-year-olds still want to live like they're 20. In his first lengthy meeting with Emily, Albrecht's advice anchors the film, "I believe in forgiveness. People change. If they need to, they change." Documenting one person's potential for change is certainly an affecting idea and Assayas says he wanted to make Clean "extremely simple and universal as possible." What's at stake is whether or not Emily is disciplined enough to meet her own challenge and lead a straight life. For this character study to work, Emily needs to be an engrossing person, however selfish or unlikable her actions. Maggie Cheung is certainly more than talented and interesting enough for the role. Assayas' stylistic choices can make the action a little too reserved and underwhelming for the story, a too-tidy visual approach for a lead that staggers and stumbles through life. But overall Clean is still an affecting, carefully assembled drama.