in the Clouds
In the generation of Australian directors who began their work in the 1960s or '70s and went on to forge an international career, some – such as Bruce Beresford and Fred Schepisi – are essentially chameleons, who bend their personality and style to whatever subject matter or genre is at hand.
But director-writer John Duigan is an unmistakeable auteur in the sense that his films always address two central, obsessive topics: radical lifestyle (especially of a sexual variety) and radical politics.
If Duigan's films, from The Trespassers (1976) to Lawn Dogs (1998), sometimes seem a little old-fashioned, even nostalgic, that is because he tenaciously holds to the counter-cultural wisdom of his youth that 'the personal is the political'. And it is also because Duigan continues to affirm a certain way of telling stories: solid, classical, and forever concerned to understand life's intimacies within a social, historical context.
Head in the Clouds is Duigan's best film since the nationally much-loved The Year My Voice Broke (1987). It covers a lot of ground. This moving tale of love and loyalty takes us from pre-World War II decadence in Britain, through the grim realities of the Spanish Civil War, to the Nazi occupation of France and its aftermath.
Gilda (Charlize Theron) is a free spirit. Her intimate life is progressive, but she is fundamentally apolitical – in stark contrast to Guy (Stuart Townsend) and Mia (Penélope Cruz), with whom she forms a loose, Jules and Jim-style trio. Guy and Mia eventually quit the glamorous fun of Paris for the noble cause in Spain – he because of abstract idealism, she because of tragic family experience. Back home, Gilda starts consorting with German officers.
Duigan's films have sometimes collapsed because of a simplistic dualism: stuffy bourgeois manners versus libertarian fun, as in the dire Sirens (1994). But here sex and politics are set at odds, compared and contrasted in various, subtle ways.
The entire story hinges on the question of how much Gilda really cares – about herself, her friends, or the world. Does a head in the clouds necessarily mean a head in the sand? A marvellous scene where Gilda takes revenge on the sadistic Max (Peter Cockett) for the hurt he has inflicted on Mia during their sex-play gives an early indication of the secret complexity of her character.
Head in the Clouds occasionally displays the kinds of shorthand clichés that are almost inevitable in a good-looking, history-based, international co-production: the streets of Paris are chock-full of a picture-postcard Frenchness, while the array of grim British faces lined up for the boat to Spain resembles an outtake from Ken Loach's Land and Freedom (1995).
But the flaws in this film are minor. After so many years as a director, Duigan has finally hit his stride. The performances he elicits are superb, and the scenes are staged in a confident, fluid, telling fashion. This may be a quiet, subtle mise en scène, but it is none the less mise en scène worthy of the name.
Above all, Duigan manages to convey a rich, multi-faceted mood poised between the excitement of an 'eternal present' and a weightier sense of responsibilities and commitments engendered by time passing.
With Head in the Clouds, Duigan becomes one of Australia's most substantial and significant expatriate filmmakers.
© Adrian Martin June 2005