Review by Malcolm Lawrence from Seattle February 16, 2000


Total Eclipse


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 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 occured to me while I was watching the film, primarily because their relationship demonstrates their symbiotic need for each other intellectally first and foremost, quite seperate 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 of 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, 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 blossoms 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 wether he should go gallivanting around Europe with Rimbaud, or stay with his wife and help her 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 and 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.