Portrait of a Poet
by John Hart
Leonardo DiCaprio gives a fearless performance in this unruly English-language film about the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, and his affair with married poet Paul Verlaine.
David Thewlis plays Verlaine, and he's pretty wonderful, too, even if the part isn't as showy. It's DiCaprio who has the star role, and he plays it to the hilt, flamboyantly capturing Rimbaud's youthful excessiveness, his rude iconoclasm, his flirtatious bisexual hedonism as well as his self-destructive abandonment of his chosen profession.
As a portrait of the artist as an utterly out-there young man, DiCaprio's work is something to see. As an actor, he never seems to censor himself or hold back emotion. It's the same kind of commitment he brought to his portrayal of a retarded teenager in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but here it's used to suggest the unencumbered soul of a genius.
Opinions on Polish director Agnieszka Holland's movie, based on a play that Englishman Christopher Hampton wrote as a teenager, are likely to vary wildly. In some ways it's a Euro-pudding, a muddle of conflicting accents and choppy storytelling.
It also fails to show why we should care about these two self-indulgent oafs, who drink their way across Europe while gratuitously offending what appears to be the entire 19th-century writers' community and abandoning Verlaine's family.
Their poetry simply isn't an important part of the script, and that's a crushing omission. True, many big-screen artists' biographies stumble by including too much of what made their characters famous, but Total Eclipse is like Amadeus without music or a Van Gogh movie without paintings.
Yet there's something bracing and honest about the movie's politically incorrect portrait of a gay relationship that's something less than ideal. Verlaine and Rimbaud are incredibly brutal toward each other, they're capable of betrayal and outright abandonment, and they are not immune to the homophobia of a period in which sodomy laws could be strictly enforced. Not all of their cruelty and self-hatred may be explained away by society's treatment of them, but it's certainly presented as part of their psychological makeup.
At the same time, the love they do feel for each other is celebrated without inhibition. It's based on intellectual as well as physical passion. Verlaine is presented as an aging father and husband who is still attached to wife and child (whom he treats even worse than he does Rimbaud), but for whom the temptation to find satisfaction with this incredibly bright teenager is too great to resist.
Hampton's script makes certain that we're charmed by this rude boy, in part because the character has so little use for convention. As Verlaine points a gun at him, Rimbaud sidesteps his fear and cheerfully announces, "This is a rather entertaining number; we haven't seen this one before."
Verlaine's final meeting with Rimbaud's repressed sister, who is planning to destroy certain of his writings and publish "a very careful selection of what is to survive," is scathingly ironic.
"We did our best work together," Verlaine insists, knowing full well what that partnership cost him.