Film

Head in the Clouds (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Gilda fits right in: whether she appears to be alternately vacuous and misunderstood, she's stunningly one-dimensional.


Head in the Clouds

Director: John Duigan
Cast: Charlize Theron, Stuart Townsend, Penélope Cruz
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-09-17 (Limited release)

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.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta


Keep reading... Show less
Film

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
9
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image