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Rebel, Rebel 

Activist meets hedonist in the romantic wartime drama Head in the Clouds

Wednesday, Sep 22 2004
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It's the 10th anniversary of John Duigan's smart, sensual, and superb movie Sirens, and I'm reflecting on the comment of a female friend when I asked her how she liked it. At the time, in American pop culture, we were experiencing the last original gasps of the riot grrrl movement, and she replied with disdain, "You can tell a man obviously made that movie." She said "man" the way most people say "pustule," but failed to explain herself further. Alas. I wonder if Duigan's consistent themes of romantic pining and wanton sensuality would now hold more appeal for her, especially since he's got the "It"-girl Monster herself, Charlize Theron, starring as a ballsy hedonist in Head in the Clouds.

Returning to the 1930s just in time to parallel Stephen Fry's narratively similar Bright Young Things, Duigan now reveals his take on what was happening halfway around the world from his quaint Australian artist's retreat in Sirens. The same concepts still resonate -- explosions in the arts, oppressive mores versus fleshly passions -- but now, despite his trademark swoons over feminine beauty (and sweetly naughty moments), jackbooted ghastliness is approaching. The drama spans England, France, and Spain (though it's shot mostly in Montreal), and fanciful little orgies, gay repartee, and even dancing to Django Reinhardt (played by John Jorgenson) are meeting with real threats from burgeoning fascism. In the midst of this, Duigan elegantly paints a moving romance of errors.

Our hero is Guy (Stuart Townsend), whom we first meet as a British-Irish student at Cambridge in 1933, conscientiously studying Aristotle when saucy French-American Gilda (Theron) bursts into his room to hide, on the lam from a tryst gone sour. ("Yer very modern, aren'tcha?" he gently chides -- little does he know.) She chastely shares his bed, primly praises his willie, and is off at dawn, inspiring years of melancholic yearning of the sort Duigan magnificently rendered in The Year My Voice Broke and Flirting. Later, at a posh party, they manage a bang on a billiards table, but she remains elusive until 1936, in Paris, where they clash over his dedication to fighting fascism and her obliviousness toward anything that doesn't immediately please her senses. Eventually, her wily caprices will mount into horrors.

Into this milieu Duigan drops Mia (Penélope Cruz, touchingly grounded), a Spanish refugee who has fled Franco's war machine to shack up with Gilda, who employs her as a model for her photography and froufrou parties. Herein lies the rub: Mia is studying to become a nurse so she can return to Spain and assist the Republican army. This fires Guy's passions, as he also intends to fight for justice there. But spoiled Gilda just doesn't get it (thus the title). The daughter of a wealthy French champagne baron (a sublimely chilly Steven Berkhoff) and an unseen American nutcase, Gilda just wants to have fun, with no involvement in this rebellion business (although, tellingly, her exhibit featuring Mia is titled "The Tyranny of Youth"). She even raises a toast to her dubious philosophy: "Here's to judicious cowardice."

Plenty of obstacles await these lovers, as Guy and Mia struggle in Spain without Gilda's blessing (or even makeup artists) and the Germans occupy France, infiltrating Gilda's personal circle. (Thomas Kretschmann smartly plays the Nazi sucker who's next in line to win her bitter affections.) Copious newsreel footage, radio broadcasts from Churchill, and impeccable period designs plunge the viewer into the era, but despite some carnage, this isn't really a war film. It's a John Duigan film -- a brilliantly conceived and delivered extension of the obsessions that have driven one of our finest directors to create excellent cinema for years. It's as if Pru, the wannabe revolutionary model from Sirens (played by the remarkable -- and remarkably unsung -- Kate Fischer), has now blossomed from supporting character to feature-length consuming passion.

There's torture, bloodshed, and terrible tragedy here as well. Perhaps my grumpy friend could appreciate this enriched vision of femininity, or perhaps she'd merely slam Duigan for not being Jane Campion. Tough call.

Amid its lavish romance-novel scenarios, Head in the Clouds does summon some puzzlement. Townsend is a fine actor but too dewy to portray a beleaguered revolutionary -- and is he really dumb enough to dump a lovely girlfriend (Amy Sloan) for a time bomb like Theron's character? Meanwhile, the film presents his fellow resistance fighters as being more cruel and brutal than the fascists, which is weird. Also related, and odd: The climactic misery could be abated via smart dialogue -- which Duigan skillfully sharpens for his characters only until they need it most.

Nonetheless, it's impressive to note that real-life couple Theron and Townsend possess combined skills beyond hanging out in trendy sushi restaurants. Their relationship on-screen is wild and daring, but ultimately most convincing because of its inherent sadness, as it becomes a universal portrait of failed love. As promised, we definitely observe a head in the clouds, but also, disturbingly, a heart in the ashtray.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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