Head in the Clouds

There are certainly fans of period-piece melodramas, and I know there are people who want to see Charlize Theron and Penelope Cruz become involved in a tickle-fight on top of a bed while clad only in their underwear — but how much do those two groups overlap? British writer/director John Duigan seeks to find out with his new film “Head in the Clouds,” a sumptuous-looking but very flat-feeling drama set in Paris and London in the 1930s and ’40s.

After a useless prologue in which the protagonist is told by a fortune teller that she will die at 34, we begin in earnest at Cambridge University. In a somewhat randy “meet-cute,” debutante heiress Gilda Besse (Theron) bursts into the dorm room of a guy named Guy (Stuart Townsend) to escape the rain and the watchful eye of any proctors who might have seen her slip out of her boyfriend’s room moments earlier. (They had a fight, which is why she can’t just go back there.) Guy is a gentleman, so he allows her to stay there for the night, which leads to some bawdy, erection-based flirting between them.

We soon realize that bawdiness and erections follow Gilda wherever she goes. She is what’s known in this era as a “modern woman,” which means she has sex a lot. Her boyfriend, Julian Ellsworth (Gabriel Hogan), gets around, too, and doesn’t seem to mind Gilda’s escapades. Guy, from a humble working-class family, is shocked at the wealthy, debauched people he encounters while associating with Gilda.

Guy is a serious fellow anyway. While Gilda goes off traveling the world, he gets a job teaching in London and becomes active in several political causes, including the fight against fascism in Spain. His and Gilda’s mutual friend Mia (Cruz), a stripper who wants to be a nurse (don’t they all?), is similarly passionate about the situation in Spain, her homeland.

Gilda cannot understand their fervor. She enthusiastically avoids caring about news of the world, maintaining a cavalier attitude about everything, including her relationships with Mia and Guy. When Guy goes to war — first in the Spanish Civil War and then in World War II — Gilda can no longer ignore reality and must get her head, as they say, out of the clouds.

The film looks marvelous, photographed by the little-recognized but talented Paul Sarossy. It has the wistful, weepy look that I’m sure Duigan wanted. But Duigan’s screenplay is ineffectual, presenting characters who, despite good-enough performances by Townsend and Theron, don’t connect to each other or to us. The film is emotionally distanced from its audience, too stoic and stuffy. You’d never guess a film with as much sex as this one could be so stodgy, but there you go.

C (2 hrs.; R, some strong sexuality, a few scenes of nudity, a bit of profanity, brief strong violence.)