Despite the film’s terribly generic title, it would be possible to give John Duigan’s Head in the Clouds a free pass based on eye-candy alone. Any movie populated by the glamorous movie-star looks of Charlize Theron, Stuart Townsend, Penelope Cruz (1930s clothes benefit her to no end) and Thomas Kretschmann is certain to be easy on the eyes.
Add to that Duigan’s penchant for rich and attractive imagery, and in Head in the Clouds, he challenges the to-die-for beauty of Sirens. This is a gorgeous movie on every possible visual level. It’s also a damned peculiar one on nearly every other level, which may well have been Duigan’s intention. If he indeed set out to make the most preposterous, over-the-top and sweeping epic he could cobble together, then he succeeded with a vengeance.
And deliberate or not, that’s what he’s ended up with. Taken on that level, Head in the Clouds is some kind of cockeyed masterpiece, albeit one that seems derived from a raft of other movies, with a smattering of literary influences tossed in for good measure. The film is a logical extension of the sort of work that Hollywood screenwriters pieced together on demand back in the 1930s.
And indeed, Duigan’s screenplay could take a cue from Bella and Samuel Spewack’s play about Hollywood screenwriting, Boy Meets Girl, and describe the heroine as “a high-handed rich bitch.” That would be a perfect description of the spoiled, selfish and hedonistic Gilda Besse (Theron), as she’s depicted for most of the film. The very fact that she’s christened Gilda ought to tell us something: Historically, film “Gildas” — from Miriam Hopkins’ Gilda Farrell in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living to Rita Hayworth’s Gilda Mundson in Charles Vidor’s Gilda — have been self-centered forces to contend with. Duigan’s Gilda is no different.
After a quasi-mystical opening — schoolgirl Gilda is confronted with a palmist who cryptically tells her, “I see your 34th year,” the adult Gilda bursts into the film as it flashes forward to Cambridge in 1924. There, she ducks into Guy’s (Townsend) dorm room to keep from being caught in her fiance’s room. Soon, she’s getting out of her wet clothes (why they’re wet is left unaddressed) and into Guy’s bed. It’s a chaste encounter, except for how Gilda’s visit prompts a certain effect on part of Guy’s anatomy.
This chance meeting leads to an on-again/off-again affair that will last until the end of World War II and encompass everything from the Paris art scene of the ’20s and ’30s, in all its decadence, to the Spanish Civil War, in all its idealism. A story that’s exhausting in its scope? Well, yes, a bit.
The film covers much of the ground that its Hollywood models never could, in terms of eroticism and sexuality, including a steamy bath scene between Gilda and Guy and a kind of menage a trois involving the couple and Spanish model Mia (Cruz). (True enough, the underlying setup in Design for Living was also a menage a trois — though there it was merely suggested.)
But all in all, Head in the Clouds is ultimately a rather old-fashioned movie, and much more of a movie movie than a realistic one in its depiction of a selfish heroine and her two very idealistic lovers. The film even telegraphs its punches. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that as soon as Mia says, “At last I’ve lost my halo,” something grim is in the offing.
Perhaps this is a result of the film’s apparent patchwork design. The Cambridge scenes play like nothing so much as a heterosexual version of James Ivory’s Maurice, with a little Evelyn Waugh literary influence added. The Paris art scenes and, especially, a visit to Gilda’s filthy rich, reactionary father (Steven Berkoff) feel like something out of Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah. The whole Paris in the ’20s chapter, for that matter, suggests something penned by Hemmingway or John Monk Saunders. The Spanish Civil War also inevitably conjures up Hemingway. The World War II footage is like a hybrid of Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena and George Seaton’s The Counterfeit Traitor (the film even copies images from the latter).
As a result of all this borrowing and modeling, Head in the Clouds never quite feels like its own film, but still it works on its own derivative terms. Moreover, the film has sequences of notable power. The use of Sir Edward Elgar’s somber First Symphony over the scenes at the start of the Civil War is a beautiful touch that’s enhanced when the music recurs at a key point toward the end of the film. There are numerous such moments, not the least of which is a deliberately unreal meeting between Gilda and Guy: When he returns from Spain, they encounter each other on a street where the yellow glow of the lights is obviously painted onto the sets.
That approach, I suppose, is the key to the entire film; Duigan’s characters are moving through a series of fantasticated environments and events and playing out their equally fantasticated roles accordingly. The approach may not be wholly successful, but it’s a fascinating attempt and a strangely satisfying one. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and some violence.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke