Head In The Clouds


REVIEW by Willard Manus

Charlize Theron, in her first film role since her prize-winning turn as serial-killer Aileen Wuornos in Monster, gives another strong performance in British writer/director John Duigan's historical drama HEAD IN THE CLOUDS. This time around Theron doesn't have to play ugly; on the contrary, for much of the two-hour film she gets to show off her beauty and wear glamorous gowns and jewelry, only to be shorn of all outer trappings by film's end, when her life ends badly.

Duigan, whose previous films were Sirens and Flirting, has come up with a feature that is a throwback to such 40s films as Casablanca and A Foreign Affair, love stories set against the backdrop of war and intrigue. "This story came out of my desire to express the tension between two points of view on how to live one's life," said Duigan in a program note. "The period between the wars is something I had studied extensively at university. In essence, you have the climate of the Roaring 20s as a response to the appalling carnage of World War I. Psychologically, a lot of people were trying to close their eyes to the possibility of another dreadful war, and this was especially true in Paris, where there was a very vibrant cultural scene."

What is fresh about HEAD is the way it treats sex. Theron's character, Gilda Besse, is a young, wealthy woman who is unafraid to indulge herself in the pleasures of the flesh. So bold and uninhibited is she that she shocks the man who falls in love with her, Guy, an Irish-born young fellow played by the charismatic Stuart Townsend.

Gilda and Guy meet at Cambridge in the 30s, where he is studying on a scholarship. The two are opposites; he's poor, idealistic and leftist, worried about the impending civil war between republicans and royalists in Spain. She's wealthy (the daughter of a French aristocrat raised by an American mother), fun-loving, indifferent to politics and history. Their class differences don't keep them from hooking up and enjoying a little hanky-panky.

The affair becomes even more intense when the story shifts to Paris, where Gilda, after a brief fling as a movie actress, has now set up shop as an avant-garde photographer. Her helper is a Spanish-born model, Mia (Penelope Cruz), whose young husband has recently been killed by the hostilities in Spain. Guy tracks Gilda down and the two of them make torrid love as a result of which Guy drops out of Cambridge and moves in with Gilda and Mia (as part of a menage a trois).

Duigan is good at capturing the glitter and glitz of the high life in Paris: parties, cafes, jazz clubs (John Jorgenson does a nifty imitation of gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt). Although most of the interiors and the main Paris locations were recreated in Montreal, cinematographer Paul Sarossy, production designer Jonathan Lee, art director Gilles Aird and costume designer Martin Davignonm do masterful work in putting an authentic vision of 1930s Paris on screen.

The story shifts gears in the middle portion of the film, when Guy and Mia go off to fight fascism in Spain, against Gilda's vociferous opposition; she cannot understand why they should want to try and save the world (deep inside she looks at life in a dark, fatalistic way).

Gilda's selfishness and love of luxury and ease motivate her to become a collaborator when WW II breaks out and the Germans conquer Paris. She takes a Nazi officer as a lover and seemingly has no regrets about it when Guy, now working behind enemy lines as a British spy, confronts her. But Gilda's life is more changed and complicated than she allows, the revelation of which is saved for the film's final tragic moments.

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS packs a sneak punch; just when it seems to become a by-the-numbers wartime romance, it lashes out and hits with unexpected force.