Total Eclipse

Watching Total Eclipse's nineteenth century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, engage in endless arguments about the nature of love, you wonder when they had time to produce the kind of poetry that revolutionized the world of letters. And considering the profound influence that Rimbaud's work had on such figures as Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison, Agnieszca Holland's new movie provides only scant clues about his genius.

Holland (Europa, Europa, The Secret Garden) should be commended for steering away from Hollywood's time-worn cliches of the biopicture, a genre which tends to make very different artists appear the same, no matter how idiosyncratic their personalities. But when you sit down to watch a movie about renowned literary figures, the least you should expect is some illumination into their creativity. Regrettably, Total Eclipse is long on the turbulent personal interludes of its two heroes, but short on context.

So, what's left A series of intermittently powerful encounters of the mutually destructive, on-and-off relationship between Verlaine (David Thewlis) and Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio). There's also an unprecedented depiction of the volatile sex the two men had–with frontal nudity by Thewlis, though curiously not by DiCaprio. If the sodomy scene–with DiCaprio on top–is not as steamy or hot as you would hope, it's still much more explicit than any Hollywood movie has ever dared to show.

The main problem here is not so much Holland's direction, which occasionally soars with poetic imagination, as Christopher Hampton's screenplay. Hampton, who won an Oscar for Dangerous Liaisons, proudly boasts that he wrote the first draft of his play when he was 18. But his youthful perspective is both a blessing and a curse. The narrative aptly reveals an infatuation with Rimbaud's restless rebelliousness–the young poet was only 16 when he burst into the staid, very married life of Verlaine. But the tale is too restrictive in what it chooses to tell us. The movie dwells too much on the private lives of its celebs, but it never really shows us how they inspired each other.

Total Eclipse comes across as an hysterical psycho-sexual drama about obsessive love–yet another version of amour fou. Verlaine loves Rimbaud because he finds him exceptionally powerful; he needs his energy, but finds himself exhausted by its demands. Rimbaud is attracted to his elder, because he believes he has found the perfect companion to share his search for absolute truth–and eternal beauty.

Playing demented characters is nothing new for Thewlis (Naked) and DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grapes). Both acquit themselves respectfully, if not admirably, but I'm not sure how big of a challenge the new roles presented. Though Thewlis throws himself into the part of Verlaine, the character's unsavory traits result in a rather unappealing portrait. Thewlis–and the audience–have to endure one particularly embarrassing scene, in which the frustrated Verlaine returns home after yet another battle with Rimbaud and pitifully forces himself on his voluptuous wife (Romaine Bohringer, who cuts a most dashing figure).

DiCaprio, still looking boyish, gives a volatile performance as the hot-burning artist who despises everything about the bourgeoisie–above all its pretentious, banal art. He plays Rimbaud–the product of a poor, uneducated, rural family–as an alien from another planet who's determined to push every experience to the limit. There's a marvelous scene in which Rimbaud, the ultimate bohemian, gets up on a table during a public poetry reading and pisses on the guests.

If Rimbaud's excesses can be at least partly excused on the grounds of his overzealous idealism, it's harder to understand the motivations of the sensitive, weak-willed Verlaine, who was torn between Rimbaud and his love for his very rich wife, who provided him a secure, worry-free life.

The conflicting accents of the three leads (American, British, and French) bears pointing out. Accents, the jinx of most international co-productions, wouldn't matter so much if the narrative were more fully rounded, more emotionally satisfying.

On the plus side, this philosophical fable boasts a grand visual style that often approximates an hypnotic, hallucinatory dream. The film's particularly pleasing to the eye in its last half hour, which finds the now ailing Rimbaud in the African desert, facing the expansive blue horizon of the sea–a landscape that symbolizes his life-long ambition to reach the infinite limits of the human experience. Too bad the evocative locations and inventive production design are more exciting than the individuals they inhabit.