Head in the Clouds

Written and directed by John Duigan

Starring Charlize Theron, Stuart Townsend, Penelope Cruz, Stephen Berkoff

It’s something of a surprise to learn John Duigan is a Brit. Most people who know his name automatically equate it with one of our best loved films about life in rural Australia in simpler times and simpler places, The Year My Voice Broke, and its belated sequel Flirting.

But he’s more of a European filmmaker than most people realise, and after Head in the Clouds, hopefully his reputation for capturing the textures and flavours of Europe will come into sharper focus. The epic romantic tale about the different ways one can live one’s life is beautifully crafted, styled and shot — conveying the gamut of lifestyles that comprised Europe during the 1930s, from the happy go lucky days of bohemian Paris to the dirt-gritted, bloodstained fields of Spain under Franco’s enclosing grip.

And it’s exactly what Duigan was hoping for — told through the eyes of three very distinct characters. ‘I’ve always wanted to do a film set in that period of time, particularly focusing on Paris,’ he says from his native London, ‘Apart from being the centre of the artistic world at that time, the drift towards war made any thinking person in the late 1930s realise it was probably inevitable. I think that gave a sense of time running out.’

Duigan’s three characters, free-spirited Gilda (Theron, eating up the screen effortlessly), Guy (Townsend, proving himself better than the lazy pretty boy roles of Queen of the Damned and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and Mia (Cruz, given more to play with than her eye candy part in the recent Sahara) come together in Paris when life is all art and free love.

Gilda lives her life — as Duigan explains ‘trying to pack in as much as possible’, enjoying every moment and wanting nothing to do with war or politics. Mia and Guy, mindful of what’s going on in Mia’s native Spain, are idealists and both join up to serve, cutting short the trio’s heady days as friends and lovers.

‘While Guy and Mia are much more political their views on relationships are quite conventional,’ Duigan observes, ‘I think both of them would like to be in a one on one relationship with Gilda. She genuinely thinks living with the two of them is much more fulfilling. She comes from a highly dysfunctional family and has a jaundiced view of marriage as an institution.’

We first learn of Gilda’s view of monogamy, for example, when she seduces Guy on the billiards table at a fancy retreat where her and her boyfriend are throwing a party for the local academic aristocracy. Guy feels out of place and Gilda isn’t bothered that her boyfriend is upstairs in bed with three other women.

Over the next few years Guy finds his way to Paris where Gilda is a professional photographer, now living with her nurse friend Mia. Falling in something like love, the three lead a life of bliss while fascism ominously builds in Spain and across Europe.

Mia returns home to join her country’s war effort with Guy in tow, having decided nobody can afford to ignore the threat any longer. Only Gilda remains, her world shattered by the departure of her two best friends and possibly her true love in Guy.

They fight on the front lines and when Spain collapses Guy returns to Paris to work for British intelligence as Gilda sits in wait while the city becomes increasingly hostile and dangerous around her. When they cross paths again, it’s in circumstances in which he never expected to find the carefree Gilda.

While individual scenes are beautifully textured, well written and acted by very competent leads (Theron is a commanding presence on screen because of her charisma rather than just her beauty), the film as a whole feels a bit on the long side — although it’s never boring. The story is carried along at a cracking pace and you’ll be wishing for a happy ending you know probably can’t happen. Proof of the emotional engagement is the debate about the ending going on in Internet forums (as Duigan says, ‘If it had been a Hollywood movie it would have finished differently.’)

From lavish scenes of debauchery and high living to sequences of war torn streets, it’s a long way from filming Noah Taylor and Ben Mendlesohn in country NSW. And Duigan’s not the world’s most prolific director, but with four projects in various stages of development and Head in the Clouds on screens now, we might be seeing a lot more of his stamp of quality in future.

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