Perhaps because they’ve endured more wars on their own doorsteps, Europeans have always been better than North Americans at facing up to the randomly messy, fundamentally unheroic nature of warfare. I blame Hollywood: Only in America could a president pull the kind of Top Gun stunt that George Bush did without getting laughed off the aircraft carrier. I’m hard pressed to think of a Hollywood movie — other than the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, before Tom Hanks goes all strong and silent on us — willing to confront the possibility that heroism is a lesser predictor of survival in war than dumb luck. Two new World War II dramas from Sony Pictures Classics, each in its way a love story, point to the chasm between European- and Hollywood-generated images of what it means to live and act under fire.
Written and directed by an English-born Australian (John Duigan, whose chief claim to fame is having launched Nicole Kidman’s career with his 1991 movie Flirting), the aptly named Head in the Clouds nevertheless has all the hallmarks of a studio product straining for Casablanca effect and The English Patient profits. Sappy, star-studded and discreetly carnal — it’s the kind of undemanding weepie, at once calculating and guileless, that could make your Saturday night. Trawling the glam hot spots of Europe, from Cambridge to the continent and back again via a brief spell in Spain, Head in the Clouds is mostly set in Paris (but filmed in Montreal) where, in the movie’s early scenes, the Roaring ’20s are busily outstaying their welcome well into the build-up of fascism. This is a Paris apparently devoid of ordinary folk, a town of artists, models and party people, represented by Charlize Theron. With customary flair, wattage and lovely frocks, Theron plays Gilda Bessé (a name surely lifted from some long-remaindered Harlequin romance), a surrealist photographer and compulsive party animal who gives not a fig for the rumors of war massing on the Left Bank. Not so her roommates and lovers, Guy (Stuart Townsend), an Irish scholarship boy she bedded at Cambridge, and Mia (Penélope Cruz), a Spanish-born model with an attractive limp. Both are idealists, and when Gilda airily chides them, “There will always be wars — you need to get rid of the guilt,” they respond by hotfooting it to the Spanish Civil War front. This being the kind of movie in which people make passionate love one minute and step on a landmine the next, Mia conveniently disappears from view. Guy, now a member of the resistance underground, then returns to Paris, where the Germans have arrived and Gilda is shacked up with one of their more dapper and heartless officers, gamely played by Thomas Kretschmann (who, poor man, appears to have taken up residence as Hollywood’s pet Nazi). Thereafter the plot thickens in ways that will surprise only those who have never spent an evening with Turner Classic Movies.
Head in the Clouds aspires to complexity, equipping Gilda with a troubled childhood that explains her reluctance to spend five minutes alone with herself or think outside the box of the next wild soirée. Duigan hints coyly at bohemian kinkiness — in one unwittingly entertaining scene, Gilda demonstrates her loyalty to Mia by giving her friend’s abusive beau a robust flogging with his own whip. In the final analysis the movie succumbs to the usual hoary Hollywood myths about World War II: That within every footloose playboy or -girl apparently selling out to the Reich, there lurked a brave Resistance fighter; that even if the good must die, it’s a higher fate — not the much less sexy factor of chance — that determines who lives or dies in war. In fact, it was not primarily party people who faced the dilemmas of how to deal with occupation, but ordinary Joes forced to decide whether to act or not. When they did commit to bravery, they were largely unsung, and very often ended up dead. The one truly indelible image I carried away from Head in the Clouds was of an average-looking young woman in a drab dress, a Resistance fighter, having her head repeatedly dunked in water by flacks of Gilda’s implacable lover. “Let me live,” she cries, and then we see her bound hands slacken, and grow inert.
Zelary, a Czech film directed by Ondrej Trojan, also turns on the changing fortunes of a leggy blond (played by the stick-thin Slavic siren Anna Geislerová) with secret ties to the Resistance. The movie will not get nearly the traction that Head in the Clouds will enjoy, and not merely because Geislerová is not Charlize Theron. There are heroic acts in Zelary, but they’re quiet and woven into the quotidian fabric of a tale that’s essentially about how the best-organized lives can crumble on a dime in wartime, about the way war creates the strangest of bedfellows, and about the hard scrabble for survival under the grimmest of circumstances. Geislerová plays Eliska, an urban sophisticate who takes up nursing when her medical studies are brought to a halt by the Germans’ closure of Prague’s universities. Along with her lover, Eliska is also part of an underground resistance group that’s abruptly disbanded when the Gestapo gets wind of it. Without warning, Eliska is shipped off to a mountainous rural region, to live under a new identity as the wife of a man whose life she had saved by giving him her own blood. Joza, ably played by the Hungarian actor György Cserhalmi, is a primitive, an older man with the soul of a child and only a passing acquaintance with a bar of soap. At first Eliska recoils from him and the small village community, its routines still rooted in the 19th century.
Zelary is the story of how this unlikely pair becomes a couple, and how Eliska becomes an organic part of a community she at first disdains. The film is based on an autobiographical novella by Kvíta Legátová, and one senses a degree of romanticized gloss in the speed and alacrity with which Eliska jettisons her city duds, dons a head scarf and snuggles up to the great unwashed. Zelary is a simple story, baldly told — the movie owes nothing to the knowing absurdism of the Czech New Wave, old or new. But despite the bucolic splendor of this leafy backwater, the movie is far from sentimental, either about the inhabitants of Zelary or the Russian partisans who come to liberate them. Brutal, quarrelsome and ribald, the villagers — and Eliska with them — chug back the booze day and night to shield themselves from poverty, the brutal cycle of the seasons, and frequent incursions by Nazi platoons to hang or shoot those suspected of harboring partisans. These are coarse people, but their solidarity is as instinctive, and as moving, as their smaller betrayals. There’s bravery and cowardice aplenty in Zelary, but, at its finest and most specific, the movie tells you all you need to know about what it means to get by under — and fall prey to — untenable conditions.
HEAD IN THE CLOUDS | Written and directed by JOHN DUIGAN | Produced by MICHAEL COWAN, BERTIL OHLSSON, JONATHAN OLSBERG, JASON PIETTE, ANDRÉ ROULEAU and MAXIME RÉMILLARD | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At select theaters
ZELARY | Directed by ONDREJ TROJAN | Written by PETR JARCHOVSKY Based on a novella by KVÍTA LEGÁTOVÁ | Produced by TROJAN and HELENA ULDRICHOVÁ | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At Laemmle Music Hall, Laemmle Playhouse 7, Laemmle Town Center 5
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