Head In The Clouds

on September 17, 2004 by Sheri Linden
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Charlize Theron toplines "Head in the Clouds" as one of those impossibly fabulous heroines. She's beautiful, bold, artistic, bisexual--thoroughly modern, by 1930s standards, and beyond belief. There's nothing particularly wrong with Theron's performance, but it's in the service of a film whose intended historical sweep is more a series of big-gesture movie moments than a convincing narrative. Writer-director John Guigan's canvas teems with Jazz Age fashion, avant-garde bohemia, convulsive politics and war--all the elements that make the '30s such a fascinating period. But with its less-than-felicitous storytelling, this exploration comes up empty-handed.

At the center of the saga is the commanding and sexy Gilda (Theron), daughter of a French aristocrat, and her fitful relationship with Dublin-born Guy (Stuart Townsend), a scholarship student at Cambridge when they meet in 1933. They reconnect in Paris, where she's living with a man she doesn't particularly like but whose gallery shows her photographs and--shock of the new!--living sculptures. One of her models is a sad-eyed Spanish beauty, Mia (Penelope Cruz), who's training to be a nurse. The sexual attraction between the two women is evident, but the extent of their flirtation is made clear only in retrospect. Besides their love of Gilda, Guy and Mia share a deep commitment to the anti-fascist cause in the Spanish Civil War. When they depart for Spain to support the Republicans, Gilda considers them traitors not only for leaving her but for betraying their own potential out of a quaint sense of guilt. The next time she and Guy meet, World War II is raging, he's working with the French underground, and she's living in high style as the lover of a Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann).

With a fine grasp of period detail, Duigan captures the headiness of prewar Paris. Full of a self-conscious sense of youth and possibility, the characters test the bounds of convention and frequent clubs where Django Reinhardt (musician John Jorgenson) performs. Music is a strong element of the film, and its dialogue is often sharp, as in Gilda's love-hate exchanges with her extravagantly wealthy father (Steven Berkhoff). As an object of obsession, Theron fits the bill, notwithstanding an absurd sex scene meant to express Guy's overpowering desire. Townsend conveys Guy's earnestness but is too wispy a presence to command our attention as a hero. Cruz is compelling as the mysterious, earthy Mia, but her character is dispensed with in a disconcerting instance of plot expediency. The tension between social consciousness and individualism is indeed provocative, and '30s Paris is a perfect crucible for the timeless debate. But overwrought romance gets the better of this "Head." Starring Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz, Stuart Townsend, Thomas Kretschmann and Steven Berkhoff. Directed and written by John Duigan. Produced by Michael Cowan, Bertil Ohlsson, Jonathan Olsberg, Jason Piette, André Rouleau and Maxime Rémillard. A Sony Pictures Classics release. Period drama. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and some violence. Running time: 117 min

Tags: Charlize Theron, Penelope Cruz, Stuart Townsend, Thomas Kretschmann, Steven Berkhoff, John Duigan, Produced by Michael Cowan, Bertil Ohlsson, Jonathan Olsberg, Jason Piette, Andr Rouleau, Maxime Rmillard, A Sony Pictures Classics release, Period drama, convention, self-conscious, youth, clubs, music
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