Holly Golightly does Dr. Zhivago

Stuart Townsend and Charlize Theron find intense pleasure in each other's company, as well as Penelope Cruz, but it's not enough to keep Townsend's character from answering a call to honor and duty during Hitler's invasion of Europe.

The gravitas is missing from John Duigan's World War II romantic triangle

According to Rick Blaine's frijoles theory of human insignificance, "The problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world." The warmed-over beans that writer-director John Duigan serves up as Head in the Clouds constitute another variation on the Casablanca recipe: The winds of war sweep three ardent lovers far apart. "We'll always have Paris," Rick assured Ilsa. Gilda (Theron), Guy (Townsend), and Mia (Cruz) might always have Paris, but after Guy and Mia leave their idyllic nest in Montmartre to oppose the fascists in Spain, Paris will not always have them. "There will always be wars," complains Gilda, who cannot understand why the two loves of her life feel compelled to get involved in global combat.

Guy and Gilda meet cute in 1933 when Gilda, the hedonistic daughter of a French aristocrat and an American heiress, bounces into Guy's room at Cambridge University. She is taking refuge from the rain and from her current lover, a wealthy, snooty Cambridge don. An Irish policeman's son studying on a scholarship, Guy is dazzled by the vivacious, glamorous stranger and, since it is not safe for her to be seen at night coming out of the men's lodgings, invites her to share his bed. They of course become lovers, and, though Gilda delights in going horizontal with many others, Guy moves to Paris in order to live with her. He finds he must share her apartment and her favors with Mia, a Spanish anarchist's daughter who has worked as a striptease dancer.

By 1936, Gilda has become a famous, flamboyant, avant-garde photographer, but her giddy world of salons, cafes, and clubs is not entirely insulated from impending catastrophe. "You live in a cocoon," complains Guy, who feels compelled to fight injustice even if it means losing Gilda or his life. The central dilemma of Head in the Clouds - with obvious contemporary implications for a society in which most citizens do not bother even to vote - is a choice between personal happiness and social responsibility. As one character puts it: "We cannot live alone, aloof from the world." Though gregarious Gilda cannot live alone, neither can she can feel much interest in geopolitics.

Head in the Clouds
Dir. & writ. John Duigan; feat. Charlize Theron, Stuart Townsend, Penelope Cruz, Thomas Kretschmann, Steven Berkhoff (R)
Beginning with the credit sequence, actual black-and-white footage of the old Parisian market Les Halles that morphs into a colorful re-creation, the production is scrupulous about rendering the historical moment. In this film, it lasts from 1924 to 1945. "The moment is everything," declares a Parisian sadist who derives acute pleasure from whipping his women and who scorns Guy's social conscience. But only someone whose head is in the clouds can remain oblivious to how past and future impinge on the present.

Ironic twists in the plot keep the film from being entirely schematic: the screwball romance of a working-class activist and a blue-blooded libertine. But Duigan must have begun his screenplay with the concept of Holly Golightly does Dr. Zhivago. He summons up a war - actually two, the Spanish Civil War and World War II - as a familiar cinematic backdrop for a histrionic drama about the powers of love and fate. He counts on stock responses - to Hitler's voice on the wireless, to an image of the Seine, to a newsreel shot of Spanish refugees - to produce effects in the viewer that this lush melodrama does not earn by itself. •