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Head in the Clouds

Reviewed by Carla Freccero
Review Date: 10
.12.04


Head in the Clouds is directed by John Duigan and stars Charlize Theron as Gilda Bessé, the center of an amorous threesome that includes Mia (Penelope Cruz) and Guy (Stuart Townsend). It begins in Paris in 1924 with the adolescent Gilda visiting a fortune teller, who withdraws in silence and horror from the glance at Gilda's palm, offering, in response to Gilda's question, only, "I saw your 34th year." It then jumps to Cambridge in 1933, where Gilda and Guy-an Irish student on scholarship-meet for the first time. Gilda is already carving out her notoriety by conducting a scandalous affair with one of the dons, and innocent Guy falls head over heels in love. She initiates him and then leaves Cambridge (her mom is a wealthy American heiress married to a French aristocrat) to travel the world. Three years later, she writes to invite Guy to Paris, where she has become a photographer. We learn that Guy is now working for the anti-Franco Republican cause in Spain as the civil war progresses; when he arrives at Gilda's he meets the Spanish-born Mia, one of Gilda's models who apparently lives with her. Mia is also preoccupied by the war.

Beautifully shot with an attention to historic detail, the film orchestrates the alternation between the love story-Gilda, Mia, Guy living together in Paris in the period between the wars-and the rise of fascism in Europe, focusing especially on Spain, a chapter of the story little explored by Anglophone filmmakers but significant for a whole generation of the left in the US and Europe. Unlike some of the other movies that have tried this alternation-The English Patient comes to mind, as does Bertolucci's recent threesome plus May 68-Head in the Clouds situates itself firmly on the side of the socially committed engaged leftist activist position and understands Gilda-who protests her companions' departure to Spain-to be a decadent aristocrat with her head in the clouds. For this, I applaud it. And of course, I understand why, given the wars the Britain and the US are currently pursuing. But it seems to be doing the same thing around France as the angry Anglo hawks, making the city between the wars seem stuck in a delusional sort of fairyland until, of course, the Nazis march into Paris. It also associates Gilda's sexual adventurousness, her wealth, and her lack of political conscience, as though these things automatically go together.

Things turn out not to be that simple, of course, and the movie takes a didactic turn to explain Gilda's conversion to the cause. Interestingly, it explores with great sympathy the complicated problem of collaboration and the moment, after the liberation of Paris, when the people turn viciously against those they perceived to have accommodated the Germans in a violent and scapegoating expatiation of guilt. We are left with a not so simple moral dilemma and an understanding of the ways that no one manages to be completely innocent in the context of war. Head in the Clouds offers a good solid understanding of a moment in European history for those who know little about it, even if it does tend just a bit too much to exonerate the British and accent the hypocrisy of the French-as we might expect from an English-born director. All in all, it's an interesting and thoughtful film, deftly maintaining the balance between love and war, the personal vagaries of individuals and the solemn callings of history. Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.