Total Eclipse (France/United Kingdom, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The lives of tortured artists have always made for fascinating film fare. From Amadeus to Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, dramatic re-creations of the often-frenzied, always-tormented lives of "great" men and women have captivated audiences. Since genius is often synonymous with self-destruction, it should come as no surprise that director Agnieszka Holland's presentation of the relationship between two 19th century poets is overflowing with grimness, grief, and anger. Yet, even though we never feel much sympathy for either Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) or Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis), the material is nevertheless strangely compelling.

Total Eclipse opens in 1871 as established poet Verlaine invites the wild 16-year old Rimbaud to live with him. The youth, who possesses a keen intellect but little regard for conventional etiquette, astounds his host while simultaneously horrifying Verlaine's young, pregnant wife, Mathilde (Romane Bohringer). Soon, with his promises of intense experiences and new insights into life, Rimbaud seduces Verlaine from his family. The two men, now sexual partners as well as friends, bounce from Paris to Brussels to London, arguing about the existence of love and whether indeed "the only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable."

The story related in Total Eclipse is ambitious. What transpired between Verlaine and Rimbaud more than one-hundred years ago has influenced poetry since, but has never been dramatized for the screen until now. The relationship is complex, encompassing just about every emotion from love to hate -- a profoundly unhealthy attraction that poisons not only the lives of the two principals, but that of everyone who has contact with them. What befalls the Verlaines' marriage is only the first tragedy.

As scripted by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Carrington), the presentation of Verlaine and Rimbaud's story is erratic. At times, it's absorbing -- almost hypnotic -- but those stretches don't last. There are other sequences when the film becomes ponderous and pretentious, and where over-the-top acting blunts dramatic impact. The narrative also has a tendency to jump from year-to-year and place-to-place. As far as the characters are concerned, they're interesting only when they're together. During the overlong denouement, when the poets are separated, the proceedings become a little dull.

The performances by the two leads are as uneven as the story itself. DiCaprio (The Basketball Diaries) and Thewlis (Naked) both have moments when they truly shine -- the latter as a pathetic man questing for something to re-ignite his inspiration and the former as a cruel, torn youth who sees human society as a hypocritical, ugly place. On the other hand, each also has scenes where they overact the material (imagine them crawling around barking like dogs). Cesar-winning French actress Romane Bohringer (Savage Nights) is a model of solid, consistent acting, making the most of limited screen time.

Despite its flaws, Total Eclipse is the kind of movie that stirs thoughts and ruminations about the nature of genius, the true meaning of art, and the unfailing capacity of great people to destroy themselves and others. Holland has not matched the success of two of her previous films -- Europa Europa and Olivier Olivier -- but this picture is still a respectable examination of a fascinating historical relationship.

Total Eclipse (France/United Kingdom, 1995)

Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis, Romane Bohringer, Dominique Blanc
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton based on his play
Cinematography: Yorgos Arvantis
Music: Jan A. P. Kaczmarek
U.S. Distributor: Fine Line Features
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 1995-11-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1