OK, so perhaps the connection isn't that major, and it certainly isn't anything brought up by the movie itself, but the parallels are hard to deny. It's safe to assume that at some point in the production of this movie, which follows a woman blamed(by some) for the overdose of her more famous rock star husband as she tries to get her act together and regain some of her fame, someone must have brought up Courtney Love and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. Perhaps Olivier Assayas even looked back to the story of that couple for some inspiration or ideas, but that's probably as far as it went.
At the opening of the film we see Emily(Maggie Cheung) and her musician husband arriving in a small town for a gig. Most of this is irrelevant, and only serves to impress upon us that Emily is a junkie, and she's blamed by those around her for dragging her far more talented husband into her addiction. In fact, the first thing we witness Emily doing is setting up a connection so she can score drugs later that night. Did I say most of this was irrelevant? I suppose it might be, except for that little action there. It's the drugs that Emily buys from this connection that propel the rest of the movie. After an argument(about drugs), Emily storms out on her husband that night, and separately the two get high. Emily wakes up in the morning, her husband does not. Returning to their hotel room, which is now a crime scene, Emily makes an ill-advised emotional outburst, drawing the curiosity of the cops, and landing her in jail once they find the heroin in her purse. Almost overnight, the fame that the drug-addled couple had been searching for finds them. Emily's husband becomes an overnight sensation. It's never stated what his level of stardom is, but we hear that his death made the cover of Mojo magazine, and his family is being helped out by old friend Tricky, so we can assume he was a bit of a one-time superstar in the indie music world. Emily, on the other hand, attracts nothing but derision, and everyone in the world is apparently convinced that she killed her husband. She denies this, to everyone, whether or not she actually believes it herself.
After 6 months in prison, Emily meets with her father-in-law, Albrecht(Nick Nolte), at a small diner somewhere. He offers to give her money, she refuses, he asks her to not visit her son, she agrees. Both of them seem to think that the child needs stability, and Emily can't give that to him. As a father, this sort of thinking bothers me a bit, and although I can't completely agree, I have to give Emily kudos, because this is undoubtedly the best decision for everyone. With the small amount of money left in her bank account, Emily heads home to Paris, where she gets a job at a restaurant, and dreams of regaining the fame she once had as a VeeJay for an MTV-like cable channel. Maggie Cheung here(it's important to give her credit for this, not just her character), is marvelous here, flitting from Canada to Paris to London, alternating between English, Chinese and French with ease, and always looking completely at home wherever she is. The irony is that she never feels at home, and seems endlessly restless and always wanting more.
As much as Emily constantly talks about it, she actually doesn't seem too interested in regaining any fame. Or perhaps it's the work she isn't interested in. She gives her friends some demo tapes, she has an interview with her old boss, but that's pretty much it. She doesn't seem interested in getting some like-minded musicians together or singing in a band, or hell, even karaoke. She just continues her addictions(methadone now, not heroin) and talks about how she should be famous. Eventually, as her life becomes on disappointment after another, Emily moves in with some friends and decides to get clean, taking a menial job at a department store. She even turns down her one best chance at making an album because it would clash with her plans to see her son. Suddenly, with none of the signposts familiar to most drug addiction movies, Emily has matured and started to change her life. Around this point Nick Nolte re-enters the film(Nolte suffers a bit from 'star cameo syndrome,' in that he never interacts with most of the main cast, and often feels like he's starring in a separate film). In London so his dying wife can see some specialists, he reintroduces Emily to her son, and helps end the movie on a positive note.
Clean is a bit of an odd duck; not really gritty or emotional enough to fit into the scores of other drug films, the film is surprisingly upbeat, but never really reaches 'after school special' levels of schmaltz. What it is is a calm, intelligent meditation on addiction and the ways we try to lie to ourselves to make us fit in. Emily, while certainly not the best mother in the world, is still surprisingly honest and open with her son. While not expressly admitting guilt in her husband's death, Emily is refreshingly straightforward with her son, telling him about his father, and their life together, and how drugs gave them both some very good times, admitting that it could have been either or both of them that died(which is true). Like I said, she never admits guilt, but the discussion does bring a catharsis of some sort, and it seems to cleanse Emily of some of the guilt and baggage she's been carrying around. The ending disappointed some, but it felt right to me. Emily is recording in San Francisco, with the prospect of a loving relationship with her son in front of her, and she walks off into the sun of a new morning, clean.