Magill´s Survey of Cinema - July 3, 1996
by Carl Rollyson
Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a young poet with great talent. Before he reached the age of 20 and retired from poetry, he had written some of the greatest poems from the Romanticism era. But there was much madness behind his talent that played itself out in his violent and sexual relationship with aging poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis).
Arthur Rimbaud (1854 - 1891), symbolist poet and forerunner of surrealism, is still an icon for the modern literary sensibility. His disdain for bourgeois society, his favoring of the imaginative - bordering on the hallucinative aand the occult - makes him a perennial hero for the counter culture. His poems distort conventional syntax, his astonishingly short career (he was through as a poet by the age of nineteen), and his subsequent travels to Africa, make his life, like his work, elusive and enigmatic. He remains the epitome of the self-created artist, self-contained and unconfined. Spending his last days as a trader in Africa, and dying before the age of fourty, Rimbaud refused to settle down, to explain himself, to concede to any authority outside himself - save for his inexplicable death-bed conversion to Christianity.
It is well to have this background in mind while watching TOTAL ECLIPSE, which provides minimal exposition, beginning with a sene in which Rimbaud´s pious sister calls on Verlaine (a physical wreck at fifty), asking him to turn over Rimbaud´s manuscripts in her campaign to present a sanitized, religiously acceptable version of her brother´s work. The decrepit Verlaine as soos as she departs he tears up her card and flashes back to the rebellious youth who was his lover and his poetic inspiration. Verlaine´s treatment of Rimbaud´s sister is of a piece with his flashbacks, in which he shows himself to be a man constantly capitulating to conventional sentiments and then reneging on them in his sprees with Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The manic Rimbaud comes crashing into the established life of poet Verlaine (1844 - 1896), safely married to a buxom young wife (Romane Bohringer) who has given him a child and the support of her father´s house and income. Verlaine detests playing safe. He knows it is bad for his style, and he is mocked up for it by Rimbaud, who belches at the dinner table, urinates on bad poetry, and prances naked on a Parisian rooftop in exuberant good spirits and contempt for the niceties of society.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rimbaud as a very hard case indeed. He won´t tolerate any sort of sentimentality or hypocrisy. He spurns the idea that there is such a thing as love, and when Verlaine tries to get Rimbaud to say he loves him, Rimbaud retaliates by stabbing his fellow poet´s hand with a knife. Rimbaud is the intolerant adolescent who will not compromise - not even to get his poetry published. The important thing, he says, is to write. He does not want the encumbrances of what goes along with the literary life, the making of a name for one´sself, and the politicking that goes along with a career.
Because very litle of Rimbaud´s or Verlaine´s poetry is recited in the film, their antics seem merely irresponsible. Even reviewers in such progressive periodicals as The Village Voice have expressed their contempt for DiCaprio´s and Thewlis´ renditions of poets who seem oafish and maudlin, although the actors are less at fault (other reviewers concede) than Christopher Hampton´s vulgar screenplay, based on a play he wrote when he was eighteen.
It his hard to watch Verlaine throw his pregnant wife to the floor because he is in misery over his supposed bad faith as a poet. His actions seem especially vivious because his wife is no bourgeois bauble, but a sensitive, loving wife, genuinely perplexed at her middle aged husband´s silly and self-destructive exploits. Director Agnieszka Holland has been criticized for emphasizing the physical in Verlaine´s sexual scenes with his wife and with Rimbaud. But what is a director to do? Verlaine´s wife has a beautiful body, and he says he craves it, and the film is narrated from this point of view. Bohringer´s ample body is the bourgeois world that Verlaine loves to loll in even as it saps him of his poet´s vocation. Of course, he is going to hurl that flesh to the floor and return to Rimbaud´s hard, brutal body to satiate another kind of lust, one that rejuvenates his poetry because it is not compliant or complacent but is constantly challenging his perceptions.
Rimbaud always scoffs when Verlaine turns sentimental. Yet when Verlaine abandons Rimbaud during their scruffy stay in London, Rimbaud is beside himself with a sense of loss and follows Verlaine right into his wife´s hotel bedroom. Just as Rimbaud has stabbed Verlaine in the hand, Verlaine shoots Rimbaud in the hand. The two of them, covered in blood, are inexcusable outlaws. Nothing in the film - not its the acting, direction, or writing - makes it easy to sympathize with them. But then that seems to be the point. This is not some Hollywood bio-pic, in which underneath the writer´s grime there a soul of purity. Bourgeois society is not caricatued in order to make it easier for viewers to identify with these poets. These men do ugly things to themselves and to others. Only Verlaine´s conviction for sodomy effects his seperation from Rimbaud.
TOTAL ECLIPSE is relentless, working up a fine sense of just how repugnant Verlaine and Rimbaud must have seemed to their contemporaries. An excruciating film to watch, its tensions are relieved only by the cinematography, with scenes of the poets frolicking in the fields, and of Rimbaud´s brief return visits to the family farm, where his puzzled mother wonders aloud wether her son´s poetry will lead to anything. He does not care to say, vouchsafing only that this is what he does - write poetry. His utter self-confidence is disarming. He really cares for nothing but his own work. In such moments he recalls William Faulkner´s reply to his plaintive daughter that nobody remembers Shakespeare´s daughter.
TOTAL ECLIPSE is as ruthless as his poets. It concedes nothing to the audience´s desire to find a redeeming value in its literary figures. The beautiful cinematography shows Rimbaud and Verlaine in lighter moments relieving themselves from the intense concentration of work, but there is nothing pastoral in these interludes. The country scenes say nothing about the corruption of society and are not used to enhance our sympathy for the poets. They are not escaping social constraints so much as they are anarchists of the spirit.
Has there ever been a film that showed artists in a less flattering light? DiCaprio and Thewlis do not look any better in nature than they do in society. It is very dificult to make a film in which there is no sympathy for the rebellious characters, but TOTAL ECLIPSE achieves that distinction and thus overturns much of the modern mythology of modern literature and film, which has made the outcast the hero, and the criminal the spacegoat - all of whom have been misunderstood and sensitive souls, perverted by society. Artists, in this mythology, have been noble savages, versions of Rousseau´s view that left in his natural state man is incorrupt. But it is clear that TOTAL ECLIPSE views its poets as quarrelling with human nature itself. Rimbaud, in particular, is not just angry at society or at poets who form clubs and read to each other, he is upset about the self-deceiving aspect of human nature itself. He begins by acknowledging his own selfishness and detests everyone who does not follow suit. He feels threatened when Verlaine asks him for a declaration of love precisely because he feels love yet knows it is mixed up with his own egotism. He can say he loves, but only with a knife driven into his friend´s hand. It is a painful revelation: love can be a stabbing sensation, hurtful as well as helpful.
To say that TOTAL ECLIPSE is not to everyone´s taste is an enormous understatement. Seldom has a film provoked so much distaste among reviewers. Even if one concedes its bold and novel purpose - to attack a modernist view of writers which perhaps has itself become too pious, too sentimental, too self-regarding - and can bear its cruelty, a clearer view of what Verlaine and Rimbaud wrote might have been apposite. What were those words the poets were seeking? How does their poetry correspond to their experience? It is notoriously difficult in a visual medium to make writer´s words vivid and to show the writing process itself. Holland wisely avoids those cliched scenes of writers writhing at his desk, but without finding some fresh equivalent, Holland and screenwriter Christopher Hampton have left themselves exposed to the charge of dwelling solely on the lives and not the work. Reciting poetry would, of course, retard the film´s movement, just as literary analysis in biographies arrests the narrative. Yet without taking the risk of becoming uncinematic, TOTAL ECLIPSE falls short of becoming a completely satisfying film.