Who can help but have high expectations of a film whose IMDb keywords include "bathtub scene," "bisexuality," "falsely accused," "nurse," "French resistance" and "shot in the back"?
But it's hard to take a film like that too seriously, which turns out to be the best way to enjoy director John Duigan's Head in the Clouds. Clouds won't have you shrieking with delight as something campy like Showgirls inevitably does, but it is a whole lot more entertaining if you suspend any expectation of realism and revel in its absurdity.
Taking lighthearted enjoyment in a drama centered around war-torn Europe requires a certain permission not necessary for a movie about backstabbing topless dancers in Vegas. But Clouds is first and foremost a love story, with war as the backdrop, rather than a wartime epic as told through a love story. In the nine-minute "Making of Head in the Clouds" featurette included on the DVD release, Duigan says the war is like another character in the film, which may explain why the war itself is also hard to take seriously.
Clouds spans fifteen years, from the late '20s through the early '40s, and takes place in England, Spain, and, mainly, France. Covering this kind of terrain in a 132-minute film could easily turn out choppy results, but Duigan glides through decades and vast territory with graceful ease.
Charlize Theron stars as Gilda Bessé, the rather annoying daughter of an American socialite she claims she hardly ever knew and a French champagne magnate with a mansion to rival Versaille and nearly enough contempt for his daughter to satisfy even the most irritated viewer. Gilda meets Guy (played by Theron's real-life husband, Stuart Townsend), a working-class Irish student, when she ducks into his rooms at Cambridge after a forbidden tryst with a don, and promptly has him help her out of her rain-soaked togs.
Her sexiness has all the subtlety of a Showgirls dance number, and is more likely to elicit eye-rolling than jaw-dropping. But Guy can only resist her for so long, and soon the two are at it atop a billiard table. When Julian finds the pair cozied up the morning after his birthday party and asks Gilda what she's got on underneath the sheet, she replies, "Well, seeing it's your big day, I'm wearing my birthday suit in your honor."
Thus begins our indoctrination into Gilda's witty free-spiritedness, which might otherwise be mistaken for petulant frivolity. When Guy tells Gilda that Julian is upstairs writing a poem on Guy's date's belly, her only reaction is to smile and say she feels sorry for the woman because Julian's a terrible poet. Guy invites the audience to share in his captivated take on Gilda: "You're very modern aren't you?"