A good biographical film about artists should, at the very least, inspire the viewer to learn more about its subjects and the work they created. “Total Eclipse” has totally the opposite effect, of making one never want to hear about its protagonists again. This misbegotten look at the mutually destructive relationship between the 19th century French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaineis a complete botch in all respects. Reps of the talented participants will lend this a momentary profile on the international arthouse circuit, but negative impact on their careers will be limited by the minimal audiences pic will attract.
Christopher Hampton adapted his screenplay from a play he wrote at 18, presumably when he was infatuated with the rebellious artistic posturings of the equally youthful Rimbaud. But if Rimbaud’s excesses can be at least partly excused on the grounds of overzealous idealism and impudent self-dramatizing, the character of Verlaine, as presented by the scenarist, is thoroughly trashed, coming off as sniveling, loathsome and cruel. And those are his good points.
Pic is in trouble from the outset, as it is only much later explained how the boyish country lad Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes to enter the well-appointed Paris household of Verlaine (David Thewlis) and his pregnant wife, Mathilde (Romane Bohringer). The seriously conflicting accents of the three leads immediately cause an international co-production migraine that doesn’t ease for the entire running time.
With Rimbaud flaunting convention at every turn and immodestly declaring “I decided to be a genius, I decided to originate the future,” the grimly unappealing Verlaine is hopelessly smitten by his fine-featured protege, setting him up in an atelier, tolerating his rudeness to his friends at top literary salons and taking seriously Rimbaud’s arrogant stance that he is too good to be published.
The two also become lovers and, in a bit of parallel structuring that many viewers will find distinctly unpalatable, the poets’ ugly sadomasochistic seesawing, highlighted by a scene in which the young man stabs the older one in the hand, is intercut with interludes in which a drunken, guiltridden Verlaine returns to ingratiate himself with his wife with such winning techniques as setting her hair on fire and knocking their baby across the room.
Director Agnieszka Holland exacerbates matters by dwelling on both the emotional and sexual skirmishes with what can only be called grotesque explicitness: Kissing and sodomy scenes between the two men are photographed in frankly embarrassing close-up, while a sex bout between the married couple and its aftermath are shot in such a way as to call attention to the physical attributes of the participants rather than to the scene’s dramatic content.
Effect of this approach, with an increasingly pathetic Verlaine seeking repeated debasement at the hands of a haughty Rimbaud, is an attribution of utter sordidness and sickness to a gay relationship, an unusual stance in this day and age of liberation and advocacy.
Unfortunately, the film concentrates on this sexual component to the exclusion of nearly everything else. After Verlaine ditches his wife once and for all, the two men travel hither and yon: Rimbaud in search of the absolute, the universal and the extremes of human experience, Verlaine looking for acceptance through humiliation. What’s shockingly missing is any consideration of their artistic achievement, their mutual nourishment (or lack of same) in terms of their work.
Verlaine, the older lyric poet, is presumably excited by the new ideas the young revolutionary instills in him, but it’s anybody’s guess from the evidence here how his verse might actually have been effected. Similarly, Rimbaud approached Verlaine as a potential mentor and says at one point that he has learned from him, but it is never revealed how. According to this film, the exchange of bodily fluids, not of intellectual and artistic ideas, was the important thing between these two legendary poets.
Given their desultory personal relationship, it comes as a relief when Verlaine’s two-year imprisonment, for shooting his friend, forces a break. In what amounts to a long montage, pic skirts over the fascinating second half of Rimbaud’s adult life, noting his evidently heterosexual years in Africa but avoiding such subjects as his arms dealing, slave trading and mysterious period in Indonesia. Nor does it attempt to explain why he completely lost his passionate calling for poetry after the initial rush.
Having more than established their credentials with their committed playing of demented characters in recent pics, DiCaprio and Thewlis are cast adrift in this one due to a lack of strong context and directorial p.o.v. DiCaprio cuts an acceptable, if still rather childlike, figure as the burning artist constantly pushing the edges of experiences, but he doesn’t yet have the chops to convince as the ultimate bohemian, the source of inspiration nearly a century later for the likes of Jack Kerouac and Jim Morrison.
Thewlis has had his head unattractively shorn and is made to look like a young, degenerate Ralph Richardson; this, combined with his character’s unsavory personal traits, results in a singularly offputting characterization. When not supposed to be pregnant, the evervoluptuous Bohringer is encouraged to show off her body as much as possible.
Evocative locations in several countries and good production design and lensing make for a picture in which the settings are infinitely more appealing than the people placed within them.