When today's glamorous actresses go slumming for Oscar, they inevitably follow their hard-won drah-mah-tic success with a pretty picture to remind us how beautiful they are and how brave it was to forego such vanities that other time. After her Best Actress role as the street-ravaged serial killer Aileen Wournos in last year's Monster, Charlize Theron now stars in Head in the Clouds, a melodrama for satin-draped clotheshorses written and directed by John Duignan.
Theron is Gilda Bessé, a Euro-American party girl who amuses herself between World Wars I and II with affairs and the mad pursuit of fashionable bohemianism. Escaping from a dalliance at Cambridge, she encounters Guy (Stuart Townsend), a naïve Irish do-gooder. The fates have spoken, and by the mid-1930s, Guy has abandoned his teaching career to join Gilda in Paris, where she is dabbling in art photography and keeping a salon in Montemarte.
Gilda also keeps Mia (Penélope Cruz), a Spanish nursing student who does the odd bit of "artistic" dancing. Gilda, Guy and Mia live la vie boheme in a swirl of cognac, chiffon and group snuggling. But alas, what seeks to disrupt this happy threesome -- that darn Spanish Civil War. Guy wants to help, but Gilda pooh-poohs his idealism: "There will always be wars; you need to get rid of the guilt."
The world turns, and so does the story, which is reminiscent of historical potboilers with pink covers that made the likes of Judith Krantz very wealthy: There's a small cast of intertwining players, liberally sprinkled with vigorous bed-hopping and propelled along by large events -- World War II, or the decadent café society of 1930s Paris -- whose function is simply to goose the plot (people go away, come back, get killed) and provide color.
Duignan's story is just as hackneyed, from Mia's belabored nobility (she has a game leg -- mutilated by one of those blasted Spanish fascists while she tried vainly to defend her brother) to the utter absence of Gilda's raison d'etre. Like a dime-novel heroine, she's beautiful, wealthy, daring and desirable, and thus just is. Despite the political roil and urgency of the times, this crew intones lifeless dialogue in timeworn scenarios we've seen in dozens of other period dramas. Only Cruz brings any spark to her underwritten martyr role.
The film's final act, set amid the French Resistance, seeks to redeem the selfish and vapid Gilda, but it comes too late and is barely supported by anything we've seen prior. Because mostly what we've seen is that Theron -- her hair marcelled just so, her lips cherry red, her silk dress skintight -- looks very fetching indeed. If only the tale were as compelling.