It’s never a good sign when a weepy World War II drama, like Head in the Clouds, introduces its passionate heroine in the midst of a thunderstorm. Call it fate, but Mother Nature knows what’s about to happen next won’t be pretty.
Set in England, France and Spain during the 1930s and 40s, Head in the Clouds opens with a fresh-faced schoolgirl being warned to beware of her 34th birthday. The daughter of an arrogant French Champagne magnate (Steven Berkhoff) and a crazed American socialite, luck has never been in the cards for Gilda Bessé (Charlize Theron), a stunning heiress, who grew up in a series of boarding schools before landing in England in 1933. One night during a row with her aristocratic boyfriend – a pompous chap with a penchant for group sex – she ducks into the room of Guy Malyon (Stuart Townsend), a handsome Irishman, who grants her refuge from Cambridge security. The two immediately forge a friendship, sharing intimate secrets during a thunderstorm. Then, become lovers following a kinky romp on a pool table.
Ever the glamorous free spirit, Gilda isn’t one to stay tied down for too long, so when news of her mother’s suicide spreads across Europe, she sets sail for America, where she becomes an aspiring actress. But acting is merely a detour in the life of this fickle femme fatale. And in 1936, she returns to Paris as an avant-garde photographer.
In the City of Lights, Gilda contacts Guy – now a schoolteacher in London – and invites him to the opening of her first art exhibit. Besotted by the blonde beauty, Guy agrees to move in with Gilda and her part-time lover, Mia (Penélope Cruz), an exotic dancer who once worked as a nurse in her native Spain. The three settle into Gilda’s luxurious Left Bank apartment, causing a scandal among French society.
Of course, none of this impropriety matters much to Gilda, who for the first time in her life, decides to stop running and build a permanent home in Paris. But when the Spanish Civil War erupts in 1936, Guy and Mia – both of whom despise General Francisco Franco – head to Spain to support the Republican Army, leaving Gilda to spiral out of control.
A far cry from the brilliant World War II dramas of the Golden Age of Hollywood (think Casablanca), Head in the Clouds does capture the glamour and intrigue of this bygone epoch with resplendent results. Production designer Jonathan Lee, who spent months reviewing photos of this historic era, gives the film a look of genuine authenticity, while costume designer Mario Davignon evokes its style, draping Theron and Cruz in a colorful array of chiffon-and-tulle gowns that look like they’d been snatched from Coco Chanel’s closet.
Unfortunately, what Head in the Clouds gains in panache, it loses in plot. Director John Duigan, who’s generally so adept at making films about politics, sexuality and repression (See Sirens), misses the mark with this vapid melodrama, which spans two decades. Instead of creating a film like Romero – the director’s 1989 masterpiece, which examined the moral issues people face during war – Duigan turns Head in the Clouds into a glossy soap opera that’s more about pleasure and less about politics.
Historically, this period leading up to World War II has always been portrayed in movies as excessive, if not over-the-top, and here in Head in the Clouds that’s certainly no exception as Duigan indulges his heroine’s hedonistic side, complete with a lesbian lip lock and a bondage-style beating. But this type of provocative material does nothing to bolster the film’s ambitious narrative, confounding viewers with its contradictory message that people cannot live in isolation aloft from the political and moral issues of their time.
Still, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron, who looks every bit as ravishing as Rita Hayworth – Gilda’s cinematic namesake – does her best to imbue Head in the Clouds with a genuine sense of charisma, despite a minor tumble late in the final act. Where Theron falters is in her ability to show viewers how Gilda develops a social conscience, evolving into a civic minded do-gooder after years of political indifference. As for Cruz and Townsend, they manage to turn up the heat during a brief interlude in Spain, but eventually become little more than well-dressed stock characters, who wander the streets of Paris with their heads high up in the clouds, looking for a way out of the fog.