June 28, 2019
A Walk in the Clouds – U.S., 1995
When Keanu Reeves made Alfonso Arau’s A Walk in the Clouds, it had been a year since his breakout role in Speed, and he was hardly known as a romantic lead. Sure, he’d played Uma Thurman’s love interest in Dangerous Liaisons, as well as the lovable idiot Todd in Parenthood, but he’d never really made a film in which he was called upon to be the guy who wins the girl over time through sweetness, passion, and upstanding character. Speed had made him an action star, an impression he would continue to solidify with his next film, Johnny Mnemonic and 1996’s Chain Reaction. Just three years later came The Matrix, and that, as they say, was that. In fact, looking at his filmography, he hasn’t made a traditional romance since 2006’s The Lake House, a film whose success was attributed more to Sandra Bullock than Reeves.
A Walk in the Clouds came in between his action films, and perhaps its fate was merely the result of bad timing. Had it been made before Speed, before public impression began to typecast him as either Ted Logan or Jack Tavern, perhaps it wouldn’t have suffered so much at the box office.
The thing about Keanu Reeves circa 1995 is that he did not have the reputation he has now. Sure, he’d been in some hit movies, but few of these hits had been attributed directly to him. And his reputation as an actor was somewhat muddled. He was praised for playing characters that critics said were similar to “himself” and when he stepped out of these roles, which he did for Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing and Gus Van Sant in My Own Private Idaho, he was criticized for being out of his league, rather than being lauded for taking on a challenge. Perhaps then it is not surprising that A Walk in the Clouds underwhelmed with moviegoers. It did have its fans though, chief among them Roger Ebert, who proclaimed, “I love this movie. I love every single thing about it.”
And while I don’t share Ebert’s level of enthusiasm for the film, there is a charm to it that continues to resonate despite its rather formulaic structure.
In the film, Reeves plays Paul Sutton, a World War II veteran who returns from the war determined to reunite with his wife and set his life on a new path. His wife, however, has other ideas; not realizing how much he’s changed (And how could she? She didn’t read any of the hundreds of letters he wrote), she envisions him returning to his old job as a chocolate salesman. On a business trip, Paul runs into a young woman named Victoria (Aitana Sanchez-Gijon) and then proceeds to run into her over and over again, which is usually a sure sign of cosmic intervention in films. Eventually, she tells him that she’s pregnant and that the baby’s father has declared himself a free spirit and abandoned her. Her own father, we soon learn, is very traditional and has not had kind prognostications for anyone who would bring shame to his family, and a pregnant single daughter would certainly fit that description. Paul hatches a plan: He’ll pretend to be her husband for a day and then disappear, thereby taking the brunt of her father’s rage.
Movies such as this one often follow a recognizable pattern, and in this regard, A Walk in the Clouds is no different. There must be a disapproving member of the family, here represented by Victoria’s father. That characters counterpart must be a bit more accepting and appeal to the others’ emotions for understanding and acceptance, a description that ca be applied to Victoria’s mother, and there must be the eccentric, that oddball character who is jovial and can be counted on to dispense the most timely advice imaginable. That character comes in the form of Victoria’s grandfather, played with great passion and gusto by Anthony Quinn. The pattern also calls for a moment of reckoning, during which the truth must come out and the response to it is overblown and not to the heroes’ benefit. Here too A Walk in the Clouds does not deviate from the road laid out by its numerous predecessors.
What does distinguish the film is its focus on the traditions and culture of Victoria’s family. In one scene, we witness people coming together to save grapes from frost, and what unfolds is a scene of such grace and beauty that it matters little that the rationale behind their actions is never given. In another wonderful scene, the completion of the harvest leads to an impressive ceremony involving a conch shell, a mariachi band, and a playful dance that takes place in a vat filled with newly picked grapes. These scenes are a wonder to behold, and the film does a good job of tying their beauty to the romance budding between Victoria and Paul.
As for Reeves, it’s clear he was still learning his craft. Here, he’s essentially playing the same type of role that made Leonardo DiCaprio a worldwide sensation. Paul Sutton is a character without a dark side or an impure thought. Sure, he is suffering from PTSD and having a recurring nightmare of a particularly tragic day during World War II, but that never seems to alter his mood upon awakening. Like Jack Dawson, he’s just a nice guy who always seems to know what the right and moral thing to say and do is. It’s a less challenging role than others that he played, but he’s generally effective in it.
As Victoria, Sanchez-Gijon has a much more complicated role, for Victoria is a character whom circumstance has forced to go through life wearing a mask in front of those that could reasonably be expected to accept her in her entirety. However, the world is imperfect, and thus in front of her parents, she is one way; with Paul, another. I suspect only after the credits role does she truly get to be herself. Sanchez-Gijon does truly wonderful things with the role.
There is a safety to movies like this. We know everything will turn out in the end and that no character will emerge as a true villain. Even Paul’s wife comes out unscathed. In that sense, this is an old fashioned movie, set during more traditional times. At no point does any character suggest or contemplate abortion, and infidelity is excused as being a natural bi-product of the rapid courtships and rushed weddings that often preclude soldiers being sent off to war. In many ways, A Walk in the Clouds declines to challenge viewers, asking little of them other than just to sit back and enjoy the spectacle, and for the most part I did. A Walk in the Clouds may be predictable, yet its sweetness and charm render it almost impossible to dislike. And after seeing it, I was no longer surprised to see a headline proclaiming Reeves to be “the internet’s boyfriend.” Had more people seen A Walk in the Clouds, it’s a moniker he could have had much sooner. (on DVD)