Two days after wrapping ''Monster,'' Charlize Theron flew to Montreal and began work on ''Clouds,'' a lush epic set in Europe during World War II. ''It was nice to fall into this world that was day and night from what I had been doing,'' says Theron, referring to her Oscar-winning role as serial killer Aileen Wuornos. ''I liked throwing these three people together and having this great debate about war, love, and friendship.'' The trio in question are Theron's Gilda, a vivacious, carefree photographer; Stewart Townsend's Guy, a soft-spoken lefty intellectual; and Penelope Cruz's Mia, a sexy Spanish dancer. Together, they live in bohemian harmony in Paris...until the war separates them. And, yes, real-life sweethearts Theron and Townsend play lovers -- a matter that only briefly gave them pause. ''There is this stigma attached to working with your [partner],'' says Theron, ''but Stu and I are very private.'' Adds Townsend: ''This is not 'Gigli,' we're not Ben and J. Lo.'' He even argues there's an upside: ''You've been given a chance to be two other people, and explore different aspects [of your relationship]. So Gilda can break Guy's heart, I can feel that, and then we can go home and forget about it.''
What's at stake Theron's post-Oscar, A-list cred: Will she prove herself again, without fake teeth and leathery skin?