Arthur Rimbaud Laurent Malet
Alfred Bardey Jacques Bonnafe
Labatut Thierry Fremont
Lucereau Samuel Labarthe
Jeanne Bardey Florence Pernel
With: Cheik Doukoure, Jean-Paul Farre, Xavier Thiam, Emmanuelle Riva, Yan Epstein, Geoffrey Thiebault.
This epic biopic of the great 19th-century French poet covers the last decade in Arthur Rimbaud’s tortured life, as he wandered restlessly over much of the African continent. Unfortunately, Jean-Louis Benoit and Michel Favart’s script provides little insight into why Rimbaud forsook his poetry for the itinerant life of an explorer and hawker of saucepans, guns and cotton. As a result, this lengthy study is clearly destined to head quickly to the small screen, where it will pique interest in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in French Canada. English-speaking territories will be less curious.
Yarn begins in the early 1880s, with the 26-year-old Rimbaud (Laurent Malet) in the city of Aden on the banks of the Red Sea. Meeting French merchant Alfred Bardey (Jacques Bonnafe), he signs on for an expedition to what was then known as Abyssinia. Rimbaud and a motley crew of explorers set out across the desert, during which the ex-poet resolutely refuses to talk with his companions. They end up in the town of Harar, which is overrun by wild dogs, a state of affairs that seems to disturb Rimbaud greatly. He later poisons many of the dogs, to the dismay of the townsfolk.
He then meets a shady contraband arms dealer and they partner on a project to sell guns to a tribe further south. After more long scenes in the desert, they finally find the African tribe that’s supposed to purchase Rimbaud’s arms, but the king refuses to pay for the guns. A distraught, sick and depressed Rimbaud returns to Harar and eventually becomes so ill that he is sent back to Marseille for treatment. Pic ends with his death in a hospital there in 1891.
Malet has little to do as Rimbaud except look unhappy, withdrawn and enigmatic, and his refusal to communicate with almost anyone ensures that there’s little dramatic spark to the piece. Director Marc Riviere doesn’t seem able to decide if he’s making a period adventure pic or a psychological drama, and the pacing is mostly leaden.
The vast, barren landscapes are captured in suitably epic style by cinematographer Thomas Vamos, while Gabriel Yared’s score relies too heavily on over-dramatic flourishes.