|Written by AV News|
|Tuesday, 21 December 1999|
If you want to play a really nasty trick on - or just test the loyalty of - one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s more starry-eyed admirers, who knows the young actor primarily from his work in ‘Titanic’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ suggest a viewing of ‘Total Eclipse.’ If said admirer is still a fan after watching this film, you’ll know the admiration is based in overall talent and not just personality, because here DiCaprio portrays someone you wouldn’t mind having flattened by a falling piano.
DiCaprio plays famed French poet Arthur Rimbaud, while David Thewlis plays his somewhat older contemporary, Paul Verlaine. Perhaps the filmmakers should have included more of the poets’ actual work, which might help the uninitiated detect some good in the duo. Then again, it’s possible that no amount of literary brilliance would create much sympathy for two of the most unpleasant protagonists to hit the screen in quite awhile. True, neither Rimbaud nor Verlaine is a killer (in Verlaine’s case, this seems more due to clumsiness than lack of malice), but they are violent, petty, judgmental, hypocritical, selfish, arrogant and not terribly bright about other human beings, while managing to be very tedious to watch. In short, they’re people we don’t care to be around.
After a prologue, in which the aged Verlaine meets with the late Rimbaud’s sister, we are brought back to the year 1871, when Rimbaud accepts Verlaine’s invitation to stay with him in Paris. Verlaine promptly falls in love with his abusive protégé, who is torn between wanting to destroy all convention and needing to feel that his mentor understands what he’s talking about. Verlaine is also in love with his pregnant wife Mathilde (Romane Bohringer), though this doesn’t stop him from kicking her or even setting her on fire. Rimbaud is bratty and spiteful enough to send even the bedazzled Verlaine running for cover on occasion, but the relationship endures, becoming ever more destructive until it physically erupts.
While the cinematography by Yorgos Arvanitis is beautiful throughout and the musical score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek is haunting, these attributes are not enough to recommend the film. It appears likely that screenwriter Christopher Hampton, adapting his play, took some liberties with the facts, but even if ‘Total Eclipse’ is historically accurate in every detail, it’s hard to know exactly what we’re meant to feel. Verlaine veers back and forth between being pompous and merely pathetic, with side detours into monstrousness almost every time he comes near Mathilde. Rimbaud is depicted as being so like every handsome, deliberately vicious high school tormentor you’ve known that it’s hard to feel anything except incredulity upon being informed by the filmmakers that such a juvenile-minded twerp might actually be a genius.
Although Rimbaud gets off the occasional good line - he observes of Paris that "the depressing thing about this city is that the artists are even more bourgeois than the bourgeoisie" - and is fairly perceptive about Verlaine’s marriage, this isn’t enough to convince us that he’s going to revolutionize the world of poetry. Also, while DiCaprio has attitude to spare as the cocky, needy character, his American accent is jarring amid the surrounding European voices.
Still, ‘Total Eclipse’ might be easier to take if director Agnieszka Holland and the script simply opted to let the tale run on sheer outrageousness, instead of trying to muster sympathy for the main characters. There’s a weird sentimental streak running through the film that seems at odds with the rebellious stance established elsewhere.
Movies with tortured and torturing artistic heroes can work - witness ‘Sid and Nancy’ or ‘Prick Up Your Ears- but here the main characters don’t draw us in and they’re not quite strange enough to command dark fascination. ‘Total Eclipse’ gives too little in the way of explanation and assumes too much in the way of our emotional involvement.