By rights, Gilda Bessé (Charlize Theron) should be languishing in a grand 1940s melodrama. Part vamp and part golden girl, she’s a woman of assorted and apparently random talents, at once hardy survivor and tragic victim of circumstance, history, and her own appetites. A return to the sort of gorgeous doll parts that Theron played repeatedly before last year’s Oscar-winning turn as Aileen Wuornos, Gilda’s skimpiness is both disappointing and predictable.
A self-proclaimed bisexual hedonist-photographer-actress-heiress, Gilda first appears in Head in the Clouds when she stumbles into the Cambridge dorm room of the aptly named Guy (Stuart Townsend). As it’s 1933, her much-discussed wildness initially takes shape as smoking, drinking, and casual sexing. Ostensibly hiding from Cambridge sentries after a romp and a fight with her boyfriend, Gilda plops down in Guy’s chair and proceeds to steal his heart: so perfect, so charming, so “je ne se quois,” Gilda appears to her host the very embodiment of desire. And so he takes up her unspoken invitation to project onto her all that he’s missing and imagining, to dote on her for the rest of his wimpy life. She spends the night, chastely, and the next morning he helps her to escape, dressed in his boy’s clothes and scampering across the dewy lawn.
Their next encounter reprises this dynamic, as her coy elusiveness and his sober longing form a neat counterpoint, one that plainly indicates eventual disaster. Specifically, Guy comes across her at a party, then accepts her invitation to sex on the billiard table while her boyfriend is having an “orgy” upstairs. The next morning, boyfriend is only slightly bothered by the appearance of the new man entangled with his woman, and Guy is both undone and smitten. Every experience that follows will be compared to what he thinks he shares with this ravishing beauty.
As vapidly noble as his name suggests, Guy, once seduced, loves her truly and only. This in spite of his general predilections to contemplate history and politics, to consider good causes his own. “On paper I’m British,” he introduces himself, “but don’t believe in countries much.” Gilda takes this to mean that he’s a free spirit, much like herself. But it would appear that this studious young man thinks another way, across national borders and toward communal (not to say socialist) movements and obligations. By way of high contrast, Gilda asserts sometime later, “I give my allegiance to those around me.”
Poor Guy, he can’t possibly keep up with his guiding light. Specifically, he can’t aspire to the flights of fancy — and expenditure — that Gilda assumes as a matter of course. The offspring of an unseen American mother and a French champagne tycoon (Steven Berkoff), whom she apparently lives to torment, Gilda knows nothing of limits, and so, the film suggests, she both inspires and alarms her naïve lover. When she and Guy are reunited in Paris, Gilda is briefly aligned with another pretty young man, whom she’s willing to dump immediately, just as she expects Guy will dump his decidedly un-pizzazzy girlfriend. Now free to act out their fantasies, sort of, they rent a flat together, and thereupon invite Gilda’s occasional other lover Mia (Penélope Cruz) to move in with them.
A stripper with a limp currently studying to become a nurse, Mia appears, only somewhat unexpectedly, to be the most honest member of the trio, and the least impressed by Gilda’s flairs. Though she professes her adoration for the perfect golden girl as sincerely as does Guy, Mia also has some special insight into “women”‘s vaunted inscrutability. She goes so far as to help Gilda shake up Guy’s world one more time, engaging in a “lesbian” performance of the sort that titillates Howard Stern, allowing their eager spectator to indulge in just the sort of conventional girlie reverie of which he really needs to be disabused.
To her credit, I suppose, Mia also inspires Guy to study up on politics, even to recall his own more gallant inclinations. While Gilda gets over her brief fling with shallow Hollywood and pursues a career as an avant-garde photographer (using impoverished people as her live exhibit subjects), Guy takes up other interests, though always hovering at the edge of pleasing Gilda. In fact, he shares Mia’s interests, such that they both take their leave of the frivolous Gilda to fight fascists during the Spanish Civil War. “There will always be wars,” insists Gilda in an effort to dissuade their good intentions. “You need to get rid of the guilt.”
Imagining they will demonstrate their devotion to the cause of freedom, Guy and Mia are also, of course, showing Gilda the error of her tawdry, self-centered ways. This despite or maybe because Gilda has already proved her own devotions — to Mia by beating up the brutal sexual sadist who abuses her, and to Guy by putting up with his sulky possessiveness for years. And so they fight the mythic good fight, on remote and local fronts, hoping against hope that they will make a difference, however melodramatic and unsophisticated that desire might be.
Gilda is nothing if not stubborn, and so she is more furious at her friends for abandoning her than she is able (on the surface) to heed the lesson of selflessness they incarnate. By the time this mini-epic-wannabe’s second war (literally, WWII) comes around, Gilda is looking completely sold out. Returned to Paris, Guy works for the French Resistance, as Gilda lolls about, playing arm ornament for a Nazi major, Bietrich (Thomas Kretschmann). Unspeakably dismayed by her lapse of judgment, Guy nevertheless holds out hope that one day Gilda will do the right thing. And indeed, as the terribly and aptly named Head in the Clouds can’t quite follow through with its apparent class-based conceit — setting shallow rich scoundrels against well-intentioned working class heroes. While such opposition is an enduring fantasy, it is depressingly simplistic. And here Gilda fits right in: whether she appears to be alternately vacuous and misunderstood, she’s stunningly one-dimensional.