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MOVIE REVIEW

Absurdity, theatrics fill 'Clouds'

The curse of the Best Actress strikes again.

Hilary Swank went from the high of "Boys Don't Cry" to the low of "The Affair of the Necklace," Halle Berry from "Monster's Ball" to being a Bond girl, Nicole Kidman from "The Hours" to "The Human Stain." Now it's Charlize Theron's turn to hit the post-Oscar sophomore slump.

"Head in the Clouds" might not be livelier if the actress reprised her role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos from last year's "Monster," but it'd probably be mercifully shorter. The new film's a success on one level: When the final scene, in 1945, flashes back to the initial 1933 meeting of ill-fated lovers Gilda (Theron) and Guy (Stuart Townsend), you may actually feel as if 12 years have passed since you sat down in the theater.

Written and directed by John Duigan, who back in the 1980s made a pair of smart, small Australian coming-of-age films ("The Year My Voice Broke" and "Flirting," with a young Kidman), "Head in the Clouds" is big, soapy, and silly in all the wrong places. It's a passable cinematic beach-read when not giving you the giggles: A luxuriously mounted epic of war and passion and darling-let's-misbehave hedonism and inevitable sacrifice that never feels as though it's about real people. The mold here is "The English Patient," but the mold has cracked.

When Guy first encounters Gilda Besse, she's the flapper queen of Cambridge University: the daughter of a French champagne king (Steven Berkoff) and an American socialite who sleeps with her professors and anyone else who catches her fancy. Guy is a shy Irish scholarship student who hides Gilda in his rooms one evening; they share an innocent night spooning, after which she pronounces, "Beauty, bravery, and brains -- what a catch. You also have a nice willy, and I hope to dream about it." The dialogue doesn't get any better, folks.

"Head in the Clouds" skips from London to Paris and through the years leading up to World War II, pausing every so often to let Theron pose in a succession of breathtakingly coutured outfits. Eventually, Gilda and Guy settle down in unmarried Parisian bliss along with Mia (Penelope Cruz), a Spanish nightclub dancer with a limp who doubles as Gilda's artistic muse and maybe-lover. The film tumbles into sex scenes that are erotic and tastefully "daring," but it loses its nerve when confronted with the actual kink of Mia's sleek Euro-trash boyfriend (David La Haye). Does Gilda dole out the dominance in one scene to avenge her friend or because she enjoys it? "Head in the Clouds" is too muddled to let on.

Anyway, you know where this is all heading: to the scene where everyone gathers around the wireless to listen to Churchill declare war on Germany. By that point, Guy and Mia are off fighting the Fascists in Spain, having grown tired of Gilda burning their collective candles at all six ends. By the time Guy parachutes into 1944 France as a British intelligence officer, we're deep behind the enemy lines of World War II cliches: plucky female Resistance fighters who say, "I know what eet ees to love someone," and secret radio messages along the lines of "The barn owl has laid its eggs." The barn owl's not the only one.

Guy is shocked to find Gilda the paramour of a high-ranking Nazi (Thomas Kretschmann, giving the part some of the sympathetic shadings he brought to his similar role in the far superior "The Pianist"). About the ensuing plot twists and turns I will only say: If you're going to work for the French Resistance, it's generally a good idea to let them know.

Theron and the movie look incredible, and she does what she can with her real but limited acting talents. It wasn't the prosthetics that propelled her performance in "Monster" to success, it was the animal rage she conveyed, and "Head in the Clouds" is far too decorous for such emotions. Townsend (Theron's real-life boyfriend) gives up without a fight; a character calls Guy "the quiet one at the center of the storm," but he's really just the absence.

Still, if you're up for a relentlessly overripe melodrama that takes place in movie-Europe as opposed to the real thing (the Parisian streetwalkers in berets are a good tip-off), by all means catch "Head in the Clouds" in a theater. Otherwise, I can safely recommend the film as a high-camp video rental -- with a side of absinthe to get you in the mood.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

Head in the Clouds
*1/2

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