Ahistoric Nonsense

No chemistry, no smarts

HEAD IN THE CLOUDS: Written and directed by John Duigan. Produced by Michael Cowan, Bertil Ohlsson, Jonathan Olsberg, Jason Piette, André Rouleau, Maxime Rémillard. Executive producers, Julia Palau, Matthew Payne. Cinematographer, Paul Sarossy. Editor, Dominique Fortin. Production design, Jonathan Lee. Costume design, Mario Davignon. Starring Charlize Theron, Penélope Cruz and Stuart Townsend. With Thomas Kretschmann, Steven Berkhoff. Sony Pictures Classics, 2004. R. 124 minutes.

What possible reason is there to make a romanticized war movie at a time when combatants and civilians alike are being killed, brutalized, blown up and tortured in several grim wars across the planet?

There was never a good war. Since Saving Private Ryan, most of the movie-going public in this country, at least, has put that crappy cliché to rest. The Spanish Civil War — heavily idealized in John Duigan’s new film — was a miserable, lopsided affair that led to countless deaths, bitter reprisals and 30 years of dictatorial repression. World War II was an unrelenting bloodbath. Head in the Clouds fails to acknowledge such facts.

Watching this film one may not notice that Paris is occupied by the Nazis, food is scarce, dissidents are hunted down and cruelly dispatched, and people are freezing in their apartments. Duigan doesn’t deal with such messy details.

Duigan’s main character, Gilda (Charlize Theron), sails through the 20th century’s worldwide depression of the 1930s, the rise of Fascism, the militarization of Germany and Italy, and Hitler gobbling up his neighbors. The film’s only reference to Hitler is a brief radio rant. A free spirit, Gilda tries to party on even as her best friends and lovers, Guy (Stuart Townsend) and Mia (Penelope Cruz), follow their consciences to the doomed fighting in Spain. But even Guy and Mia’s war experiences are air-brushed with romance.

There are opportunities for the film to examine conditions favorable to war, such as Gilda’s rich French father (Steven Berkhoff) with his far-right loyalties, but Duigan doesn’t pursue them. I can’t believe a rebellious woman such as Gilda would have been politically neutral during WWII’s continental convulsions. But as far as her snooping neighbors can see, she’s sleeping with a Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann) and living high.

This is a movie so flawed at the center it can’t be fixed. What’s worse is that Duigan and the producers who helped create this film don’t see its myriad problems. Here is a summing up of the film from its production notes: “‘Head in the Clouds’ reminds us that as much as we want to pursue our own desires and nurture our passions, we cannot hide from the real problems of history that continue to define our time.”

Reality check, please: Does that sentence make you feel infantilized? Patronized? The unctuous, meaningless phrasing of “the real problems of history” alone makes me want to slap some suit silly. This is a bloodless movie, and Duigan has no one to blame but himself. Pity the poor suckers he brought into this debacle.

The actors cannot overcome such obstacles. Charlize is bright and brittle, while Stuart is boring and ineffectual. Only Penelope brings a suitable gravity to her role, but she still has to do silly things such as a sexy tango with Charlize — a torrid scene-stopper in Salma Hayak’s Frida, but merely a hedonistic gesture here. Even the appropriation of the historic musical figure of Django Reinhardt (John Jorgensen) seems gratuitous to me.

Don’t waste your time on Head in the Clouds. Wait for something better, or see Sideways or Closer again. This really bad movie opens at the Bijou on Dec. 17, hopefully for a short time.