Contra Costa Times


Total Eclipse Movie Review
by James Ryan


LOS ANGELES -- Agnieszka Holland is practically reduced to tears as she discusses the minute yet significant alterations a few frames from two key scenes that her distributor insisted she make in her latest film, "Total Eclipse."

It is obvious that the Polish filmmaker holds this beautifully photographed tale about the inspirational yet destructive relationship between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine very close to her heart.

"I was very attracted to the dark, complex story," says Holland of her initial connection with the script painstakingly researched and written by Christopher Hampton ("Mary Reilly," "Carrington"). "What was most interesting, in some ways, was the price you pay if you try to explore your creativity (as close) to the bottom as possible."

A native of Warsaw, the 47-year-old Holland has received international acclaim for such emotionally resonant, highly stylized films as 1990's "Europa, Europa," 1991's "Olivier, Olivier," and 1992's "The Secret Garden." Before that, she was the screenwriter of such well-received movies as "Danton," "A Love in Germany" and "Anna."

It was the writer in her, she says, who found Hampton's carefully crafted story about two poets, played by Leonardo DiCaprio ("Basketball Diaries," "What's Eating Gilbert Grape") and David Thewlis ("Naked") so compelling.

A Writer's Responsibilities

"I was very interested in the character and the way he treated the story," says Holland. "Christopher has a uniquely profound and personal approach to screenwriting. Rather than reconstruct this huge life, he has made it more understandable and contemporary by focusing on the romantic relationship."

Hampton has said that "Total Eclipse," which he first wrote as a play early in his career, was a chance for him to pose questions about the writing experience:

What does it mean to be a writer? What are 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?

Despite their close relationship, the weak-willed, middle-aged Verlaine andthe manipulative, young Rimbaud reached opposite conclusions on each of these issues.

Holland, who lives in Paris, says she was surprised to learn that the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine was romantic as well as professional. "This was the first time I really knew the details," she says. "What Christopher Hampton has done is very accurate historically. There's very few things invented."

Rimbaud is as well remembered for the ribald, uncensored manner in which he led his life as for his pioneering poetry. "In every generation there is a Rimbaud: Bobby Dylan, Jim Morrison, Jim Carroll (whom DiCaprio portrayed in "Basketball Diaries"). But Rimbaud was the first modern rebel, the first fallen angel," says the director.

The Natural Choice

Holland says her decision to accept the directing assignment was contingent upon her finding the right actor to play Rimbaud, who enters the story at age 16.

"I needed to find a child-man, someone who has this power and presence and arrogance and beauty," she says. "I was so happy when (DiCaprio) accepted.

"He has this incredible emotional imagination. When I observe him at work, I get the impression that he opens his body and the character comes in. It was the same in Gilbert Grape.' Technically, he's a bit like a medium."

Holland says she used Rimbaud's poems, which reveal both the lyrical and the brutal side of life, as a model for the texture and style she chose for her film.

Two scenes that she included, however, proved too much for audiences during test screenings, and Fine Line Features asked that they be edited out. One showed Verlaine's character kicking his pregnant wife Mathilde (played by French actress Romane Bohringer) in the stomach. The other was a graphic depiction of the removal of a bullet from Rimbaud's hand.

"People reacted much stronger than they would at (the same violence) in an action film because there is so much interior violence. (But) I don't think it changes the film that much," she says. "Still, it's always very painful to alter your work. Unlike writing poetry, sometimes with cinema you have somebody else's money at stake. It's not only your body and lyrical soul that matters, but your financial responsibility."

A Different Challenge

While it was up to DiCaprio to summon the ghost of Rimbaud, Thewlis had an equally difficult and somewhat thankless job portraying the obsessive Verlaine, who abandoned his wife and child to pursue a debauched life on the road with his young friend.

"Verlaine is a very ambiguous character," says Holland. "He's a much easier poet, much more accessible and less revolutionary. But he was able to recognize Rimbaud's genius when others ignored him. He practically single-handedly saved his work for the future (when Rimbaud's family wanted to destroy it). That's the happy ending to the story."


Thanks a lot to Treggy !