John Duigan’s “Head in the Clouds” breaks no new ground in the wartime melodrama genre. Although the actors are sufficiently pleasing to the eye, dressed in their Jazz Age costumes, they and the plot they have the misfortune to inhabit are ultimately as flat as the shoddy Parisian backdrops they are propped up against.
The story follows three characters through the 1930s Europe: socialite Gilda Besse (Charlize Theron), ex-burlesque dancer Mia (Penelope Cruz) and soldier Guy (Stuart Townsend). The three meet, share an awkward mix of friendship and lust, spend idyllic days and passionate nights in Besse’s sumptuous apartment, and ultimately are torn asunder by the forces of fascism marching through the continent.
Theron’s Gilda is a far cry from her “Monster” performance; one wonders if after winning an Oscar, she decided to coast. Gilda possesses vivacity and flirtatiousness and very little else. Townsend breaks no ground in his role as the earnest, inexperienced lover. Cruz does what she can with Mia but is unable to overcome the script’s limitations. Utterly uninteresting, they spout cliches and occasionally dabble in pseudo-philosophy without displaying a hint of depth.
The basis for Gilda and Guy’s Great Love is questionable at best; their relationship is little more than a recurring drunken hook-up from Guy’s Cambridge days. Cruz’s involvement is even more tenuous. Her barely-mentioned romance with Gilda is the only element that sets this film apart from the hundreds of World War II love stories that precede it. Although he obviously intends Gilda and Mia’s relationship to give the film an edge, Duigan shies away from offending anyone’s sensibilities by keeping the starlet-on-starlet action to a bare minimum.
Duigan uses the few moments when he turns the camera away from Theron and Townsend’s bronzed bodies to grossly over-simplify historical events. Guy’s motivation for leaving the isolated luxury of Gilda’s apartment to join the Republican Army amounts to little more than a nagging sense of guilt. All of WWII is condensed into three minutes, sandwiched between bland sex scenes.
If there is any reason not to leave the theater long before the credits roll, it is the pleasant, if heavy-handed atmosphere Duigan creates. The cardboard sets, intentionally or not, lend the film a ’50s back-lot feel. The classic cars and vintage-style clothing are a treat for the eyes when boredom threatens to overwhelm the viewer. Meanwhile, track after track of Piaf-esque chansons sit nicely on the ears, reminding the viewer that the film does in fact take place in Paris.
In the end, although the characters claim to have been profoundly transformed by their experiences, only their hairstyles have changed. Duigan’s film is just as airy and devoid of substance as its title suggests.