Head in the Clouds: John Duigan’s Potboiler, Starring Charlize Theron and Penelope Cruz

John Duigan’s potboiler, Head in the Clouds, is too silly and improbable to qualify as enjoyable trash. The handsome looks and lush costumes of the stars, Charlize Theron and Stuart Townsend, are seductive for a while but not for a film that overextends its welcome with a running time of 133 minutes. While the film is never dull or boring to watch, it insults our intelligence with its preposterous plot contrivances and melodramatic clich that weigh heavily on every aspect of the production.

The great director Douglas Sirk, who specialized in melodramas (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind), once noted, “there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains the element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” By this definition, Head in the Clouds is also disappointing. As written and directed by Duigan, the film has an aura of pretentiousness and self-importance, and it doesn’t deliver the emotional satisfactions of a trashy melodrama.

Spanning two decades in telling the story of two lifelong lovers, torn apart by history and fate, and forced to choose between sexual passion and political commitment, Head in the Clouds bears the distinction of trivializing not one but two major wars: The Spanish Civil War and WWII.

Any director who names his protagonists Gilda and Guy deserves credit for audacity. Guy (Townsend) is an Irish-born son of a policeman on scholarship at Cambridge. Gilda (Theron) is the daughter of a French aristocrat raised by an American mother. The film begins with a seduction scene right out of a 1940s film noir, when a rain-drenched Gilda stumbles into Guy’s room.

Opposites attract. Guy is shy and quiet; Gilda is flamboyant and notorious for her affairs. Guy is a restrained well-behaved gentleman, who has moral and political convictions; Gilda is an eccentric hedonist, holding, as she tells Guy that, “Life is just a game. Don’t take it too seriously.” Guy may appear to be a straight arrow, but he’s a flawed hero, too. Concerned about his marriage and family prospects, he tells Gilda: “My mother was mad. I have doomed genes.”

Melodramatic events serve as turning points in this saga. The death of Gilda’s mother forces her to leave London. Years later, Guy spots Gilda as an extra in a Hollywood movie, playing a Roman slave. They correspond and Gilda invites him to Paris, where she is now building a name for herself as a photographer. After going through a series of lovers, she reconnects with Guy and he moves in. Their life together seems perfectly harmonious and bohemian too. There’s a third character in their house, Mia (Penelope Cruz), a beautiful, Spanish-born model, but the exact nature of this mnage a trios remains mysterious.

The story then switches to 1936 and the height of the Spanish Civil War. Guy, who has always supported the Republican Army, finds himself drawn to the conflict, and so does Mia. The hedonistic Gilda could not care less about politics, claiming, “There will always be wars. You need to get rid of the guilt.” Despite Gilda’s pleas, Guy and Mia go to Spain, where they seem to behave like characters lifted out of Hemingway’s novels. Guy learns to fight a la Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Mia learns to be a nurse a la Helen Hayes in A Farewell to Arms (which also starred Cooper).

Crossing paths one night, Mia admits that she was Gilda’s secret lover, which doesn’t prevent her from succumbing to Guy. As if punished for her double sins, the next morning Mia is killed by a land mine. Guy returns to Paris only to be shunned by Gilda.

Cut to six years later, when Guy is working for British intelligence, serving as a spy with the underground in occupied Paris. He is surprised to learn that Gilda is still living in her old flat but has now taken a Nazi officer (Thomas Kretschmann) as her lover. Guy risks himself and his underground unit to spend one night of lust with Gilda. The next morning, she calls off their affair and vows never to see him again. Stunned at her heartless coldness, Guy goes back to work. During a combat, when Guy and his comrades destroy a rail station, he’s the only one to survive. Head in the Clouds is that kind of movie.

D-Day is approaching, and the Resistance is preparing for the event. While expecting to meet a crucial contact in a coffee shop, Guy instead finds Gilda, in time to warn him that the meeting is a trap. Gilda has finally taken sides. Upon return to London, Guy learns of Gilda’s secretive identity as a spy for the British intelligence. Are Guy and Gilda doomed as lovers Will Gilda face the public humiliation that awaits all traitors when the Occupation is over

As if there is not enough excessive plotting, Duigan throws into the mix orgies, hot sex in the bathtub, on a pool table, and on the floor. There’s also voyeurism (Mia watches the couple making love) and sadism (Mia is abused by a nasty man who later gets his own punishment from a vengeful Gilda). And Guy’s noirish voice-over narration, “I didn’t expect to hear from her or see her again,” is banal and doesn’t add any poignancy or self-reflexivity to the story.

Duigan has shown penchant for silly romantic melodramas before, in Sirens and Wide Sargasso Sea, and Head in the Clouds assumes an honorable place in the company of these pictures. The two requirements that Duigan makes on its audience here are complete suspension of disbelief, even by melodrama standards, and the capacity to shift reactions rapidly from one extreme feeling to another.

All the characters are clich from the lead to the supporting roles. We quickly spot the stereotypical Nazi lover, Gilda’s harsh, uniformed father. As composites, conceived out of various literary, filmic and TV sources, the roles seem to have been created by images Duigan had in his mind from watching countless Hollywood pictures. The list of references and inspirations for what is billed as “original” screenplay is too long to recite here. As “the American Bohemian in Paris,” Gilda is a reincarnation of Cabaret’s Sally Bowles (in her sexual openness), Isadora Duncan (Gilda wished to be a dancer but was injured), Mata Hari (Gilda as a spy), an alluring woman of mystery that deep inside conceals the heart of a good girl.

In a sex goddess role that alludes to the screen image of Garbo, Crawford, Rita Hayworth, and Hedy Lamarr, Theron struggles to be a seductive femme fatale but her sweat shows. The film’s weakest performance, that calls for a star like the young Cooper, is delivered by Stuart Townsend (Theron’s off-screen beau), who’s handsome but lacks the charisma and vigorous personality of a leading man.

All the ingredients of a trashy melodrama are present: The emotions are exaggerated, the contrivances sentimental, the plotting excessive, the violence intense but improbable, the catharsis fake. Problem is, Head in the Clouds sacrifices credibility of plot and character for emotional opportunism.