Total Eclipse

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

My original captivation with this film has been tempered now that I’ve seen it a second time. But what I originally enjoyed and also originally disliked the first time around were both confirmed when I saw it again: My initial delight was due to the fact that the portrayal of Arthur Rimbaud is as close to capturing the inner workings of the mind of an artist as any I’ve seen, particularly in the way that he demonstrates a very logical resistance to Paul Verlaine’s amorphously fawning "love" that he offers Rimbaud. "Love doesn’t exist," Rimbaud boldly proclaims. "Self-interest exists. Attachment based on personal gain exists. Complacency exists. But not love. It has to be re-invented." And reinvented it is in this portrayal of two male artists whose relationship originates out of a sort of intellectual centrifugal force. Each of them recognize the monumental talent in the other and even though they pursue the bond they share to the inevitable sexual conclusion, the word "homosexual" never really occurred to me while I was watching the film, primarily because their relationship demonstrates their symbiotic need for each other intellectually first and foremost, quite separate from their sexual needs, which never stoops to the sophomoric level of "which one is the man? which one is the woman?" designation of gender roles. One must remember, and the film explicitly points out, that although this tale is only a hundred years old, the punishment for being homosexual back then was enough to send you to prison for two years.

Even though I’ve seen this film twice in ten days, something still needles me about the casting of DiCaprio as Rimbaud. This is the first film I’ve seen DiCaprio in, and I’m really starting to like him, and David Thewlis, as Verlaine, I’ve been raving about since his blistering performance in Mike Leigh’s Naked two years ago. Perhaps it’s simply my expectations. Since these two giants of poetry are strictly the stuff of history now, one can’t tell how on the money their characterizations are, and they ARE able to illustrate the spirits they each had remarkably. DiCaprio’s performance as Rimbaud is exact in his reading of a self-appointed genius who very convincingly illustrates the alchemical origin for any true artist: that of having a scorched earth policy, of reinventing the world on one’s own terms and of realizing one needs to have the strongest of convictions about one’s self and one’s abilities to "originate the future" regardless of what even other artists feel about you. "Poets should learn from each other," Verlaine admonishes Rimbaud when they first meet. "Only if they’re bad poets," Rimbaud shoots back. And in that refutation of what an artist "should be" is the key to why Verlaine ends up obliviously destroying not only the bourgeois life he’s tried carefully to fit into to, but also the lives of those around him: By clinging to Rimbaud as a moth to light, Verlaine begins to feel an acute amount of nostalgia for his own beginnings as a major poet and desperately tries to recapture that contagious spirit of capriciousness which blooms when one’s hormones are exploding and you feel invincible that Rimbaud represents to Verlaine. Verlaine, ten years older than Rimbaud, met him at a time when his fear of death had prompted him to marry a girl (six years his junior who was nowhere near his intellectual level) so he could father a child, who did turn out to be a son. Romane Bohringer, as Verlaine’s long-suffering wife Mathilde, is a great casting choice because although she may not have been on the same intellectual level as her husband, she was a perfectly fine person in her own right: healthy, joyous, buxom, devoted, willing to take Verlaine back countless times. Therefore, her faith in her husband underlines just how much it was Verlaine’s choice and his choice alone to decide whether he should go gallivanting around Europe with Rimbaud, or stay with his wife and help father their child. Rimbaud even tries to convince Verlaine to do the right thing and stay with his family at one point. Rimbaud’s motivations seem to flutter between his desire for an intellectual equal and his need for monetary support, which, of course means Verlaine’s wife because it was HE who married money, not her.

My reservations about this film are primarily because it doesn’t deal with the actual poetry of the men enough. I would have loved to have heard the voice-overs of them both during the scenes where they cavort among the goats on a hillside, or as they climb around the crags of the Black Forest, and when Rimbaud mentions to Verlaine that "the writing has changed me" it would have done more of a service to the audience to let them know WHY he was having his sister burn his earlier poems.

The photography, as I’ve come to expect from director Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden; Olivier, Olivier; Europa, Europa) is stunning, particularly the shots of Charleville, where Rimbaud’s family lives on a farm. Holland loves blood, but not as though you’d know it: the few instances where you see blood in this film it’s used strictly as punctuation for the symmetrical balance of their cruelty for each other, or else it’s photographed just to show what the concept of flow mechanics can do to red on white.

I’m glad the film chose to not end with the severing of their relationship, but to follow Rimbaud to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) and to the end of his life, to fully illustrate that his was a spirit who was forever seeking the outer edges of experience. He lived more in his 37 years on this planet than most people do in thrice that amount and history and posterity has shown time and again that not only were his instincts correct, but they continue to be felt a hundred years later.



From director Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden; Olivier, Olivier; Europa, Europa) and writer Christopher Hampton (Carrington, Dangerous Liaisons) comes Total Eclipse, the true story of the great 19thth century French poets, Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. David Thewlis (winner of the Best Actor Award from both the Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Critics Circle for his astounding performance in Mike Leigh’s Naked) stars as Verlaine, a volatile alcoholic torn between his lovely yet conventional wife and the seductive, dangerous and brilliant Rimbaud. Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio (the talented star of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and The Basketball Diaries) portrays the wild, young Rimbaud, a poet whose life and work was fueled by an insatiable hunger for intense experience, unbounded by rules or consequences. Rimbaud’s was a revolutionary vision that has inspired rebel artists ever since, from Jack Kerouac to Jim Morrison. Romane Bohringer (the Cesar winning actress of Savage Nights and The Accompanist) plays Verlaine’s loving wife Mathilde, who finds her husband magnetized by the intoxicating lure of Rimbaud.

Ultimately, as described by director Agnieszka Holland, Total Eclipse is a story about love. Verlaine is drawn to Rimbaud because he finds him totally, powerfully exceptional. And in Verlaine, Rimbaud thinks he has found the companion to share his search of the absolute.

Audacious, demanding and provocative, Total Eclipse is the story of a volatile romantic triangle and the lives it consumes. Like Amadeus, it illustrates the easy cruelty of young genius and the constantly warring creative and destructive forces that exist within the artist.

Although the film is set in the 1870’s, it is profoundly contemporary, partly because of the diverse personalities of the cast and its universal depiction of romantic and creative obsession. Says Holland, "Poets than were not the insignificant civil servants of literature that they are today. They reinvented their existence moment by moment, using their creativity. Verlaine and Rimbaud were in fact very different but both thought they could find everything, try everything, with no limits or boundaries."

Screenwriter Christopher Hampton, a Rimbaud scholar at Oxford who adapted Total Eclipse from one of his earliest plays, found the story to be a "means of posing a number of questions around a central puzzle, namely, what does it mean to be a writer? What could one reasonably hope to achieve? What were the pleasures and torments and what, if any, the responsibilities? Might one change the world, or would it prove beyond one’s abilities even to change oneself?"

For both David Thewlis and Leonardo DiCaprio, the film was a risky, daring choice. Comments DiCaprio, "The role of Rimbaud is one of the most important of my career and one of the best roles to play for a young actor. Rimbaud wanted to change the world from one day to the next. He was someone courageous, who didn’t worry about the consequences of his actions. I live my life thinking of the consequences. Shooting this film, I learned not to worry about what the others thought of what I was doing. It wasn’t easy, but it changed me."

David Thewlis, who shot to prominence playing another difficult, troubled soul—Johnny in Mike Leigh’s controversial Naked—does not see Verlaine as a sympathetic character. Says Thewlis, "He was brutal and possessive. I’ve learned in the long run that it isn’t necessary to love the characters I play. However, I feel great compassion for Verlaine. He’s a weak man, prone to violence and alcohol. His real drama lies in the clear separation between the life he leads and the life he’d like to lead."