head in the clouds

2004

Written and Directed by John Duigan

As the old cliché goes, this one could've been a contender. Head in the Clouds could have really been something, if only it had dared. Instead, it is a poorly paced, badly directed period piece that wastes a bevy of talented stars. When they signed on, these actors probably looked at this script and saw what it could have been. How disappointed they must have felt upon seeing the final product.

Charlize Theron, like Angelina Jolie, has a tendency to be the best thing in terrible projects (think Sweet November and Trapped) and astonishingly good in great projects (think Monster and The Life and Death of Peter Sellers). Here she shares the screen for the second, terrible time with her off-screen lover Stuart Townsend. Even the knowledge that these two sleep together in real life can't fake an on-screen chemistry that doesn't exist. The two play a pair of star-crossed lovers (Theron's character is a great believer in fate and destiny) who meet in the 1930s and form a bond that will take them through the devastation of the second world war.

When Guy (Townsend) meets Gilda (Theron) by chance as she hides out in his Cambridge dorm room to avoid both the discipline of the school board and a storm outside, he falls in love with her instantly. She is a spoiled socialite and he is a poor, working class Irish boy on scholarship to Cambridge. He is filled with passion and political fervour, she's filled with nothing but a desire for her own happiness and an endless search for pleasure. They have nothing in common, but have a brief sojourn before Gilda becomes afflicted with wanderlust and takes off to explore the world.

Years later Guy is a school teacher in England, on the brink of throwing it all in to join the Republican army in Spain to fight the first wave of European fascism. He receives a letter from Gilda in Paris and runs to her side, soon becoming caught up in her world of decadence and narcissism. Although he cannot help being affected by it, he always stands that little bit aloof from it all. He is our narrator after all, and he has to be able to provide some kind of constant, running commentary on how hedonistic their lives were. He is complicit in their sins, but disgusted with his own complacency. Actually he seems a little bored with himself, which is quite a coincidence seeing as I was utterly bored with him.

Gilda isn't alone in Paris. She lives with another woman, Mia (Penelope Cruz), who is an exotic dancer by night and a trainee nurse by day. The two are obviously lovers, though neither seems inclined to let Guy in on the secret. He knows but ignores it, happy to go on in his naive little world where Gilda loves only him. Gilda for her part is never dishonest, merely self-deluded, always deriding both Guy and Mia for their working-class politics and their belief that one day their lifestyle will end, when the war in Europe intrudes upon them all.

Finally the war does shatter their idyllic existence and Gilda is the one left behind to make of her life what she must, now that her two lovers have gone off to fight for what they believe in. Gilda is proved right in one respect; she and Guy seem destined to meet time and time again, but each time they appear to have drifted farther apart, both personally and politically. The resolution to both the war and the menage-a-trois makes up the entire of the third act so I won't spoil it here. Needless to say Gilda is grossly underestimated (both by her lovers and by herself), and we knew from the start that her end, when it came, could not possibly be a happy one.

The plot, as engaging as it sometimes has the potential to be, gets away from writer/director John Duigan. He goes so incredibly far to develop a convoluted set of characters and an epic back story only to shy from the real connections and emotional truths just as he is about to unravel them. Gilda is a creation to be proud of and Theron certainly for her part seemed willing to play her to the edge (the revenge-inspired, S&M scene is the most successful and daring of the film), but in the end cowardly direction dulls those edges and cripples the story beyond repair.

As well as being unable to produce the best from his cast, Duigan also seemed unable to make the movie look and feel three dimensional. I had the distinct feeling of being trapped behind a proscenium arch watching a bad play. The sets looked embarrassingly cardboard and the cinematography is totally uninspired. A couple of trips on location into the countryside to a grand chateau only serves to demonstrate just how terrible the cityscapes are.

Don't make the mistake of coming into this expecting any great fireworks between Theron and Cruz either. If the scenes between Townsend and Theron lacked chemistry, the scenes between the two women lacked pretty much everything. The vast majority of their sexual relationship appears to either have taken place before Guy's arrival or when Guy (and hence the audience) are not around. They share a dance that shocks their onlookers and one desperate kiss, but that's it. Exploring the attraction between the three mismatched lovers during their co-habitation would have heated the film up considerably, but even an implied threesome scene falls totally flat. Even later when Guy and Mia give in to their attraction and mutual loneliness against the backdrop of war, there is an annoying fade to black.

I can't help wondering, why produce this story at all if you aren't prepared to give it everything? This film purports to be a steamy exploration of a tragic romance in a tragic time, and all it ends up being is a placid, stagey narrative where the lead characters are less interesting than the furniture. When you can no longer distinguish the extras from the door frames it is time to throw in the towel. What should have been a tearjerker ending feels totally empty. The horror of war, the passion of love and great sex, the pain of separation and death, none of this is conveyed. Yes, it's all make believe, but it isn't actually meant to feel that way.

(A big thanks and shout-out to Christine over at www.homotv.dk for the DVD.)

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