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Movie Review: Total Eclipse – Sex, Drugs and … Poetry

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Total Eclipse (1995), directed by Agnieszka Holland, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rimbaud, David Thewlis as Verlaine, Dominique Blanc (Isabelle Rimbaud), and Romane Bohringer (Mathilde Maute).

I'm a reader. Not even a closet reader, but an out loud and proud reader, at that. I know Rimbaud and Verlaine. I've studied enough literature to know these two pretty well, actually.

Rimbaud was the enfant terrible, the herald of decadence and an all around interesting character with some pretty massive quirks. He wrote very seminal stuff between the ages of something like 16 and 21. After that he stopped writing altogether and went on to make a living trading slaves and guns in Africa.

Verlaine, on the other hand, was a symbolist poet, involved in politics (of the non-favoured flavour), married a 17-year-old moneyed young lady, quit his job, and started drinking as if that was his new career.

When Rimbaud sent Verlaine a letter with some of his poems, Verlaine immediately invited him to come and stay in Paris. Rimbaud went, 16 years old and full of huge big ideas on how to change everything. He wanted to be a revolutionary in an all-encompassing kind of way.

Rimbaud and Verlaine started what can best be described as an incendiary relationship, physically as well as on every other level. It ended badly — Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the hand in Brussels and Verlaine was subsequently arrested and served two years in prison for that, and for sodomy.

There are some true life stories that certainly have all the ingredients that could make an excellent movie — sex, drugs, and rock and roll, or poetry as the case might be — and it's just depressing to no end that this movie isn't better than it is.

Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job as the young terror Rimbaud with his clean, boyish face and the cruelty of youth as a way of dealing with his interpersonal relationships. David Thewlis plays Verlaine as a sniveling, drunken has-been and that's most likely a deliberate choice, but not one that does anyone any favours. I marvel at how very little poetry there is to any of this, despite liberal quotes from letters and poems.

There is a trick to depicting dysfunctional relationships and it hinges largely on making the viewer understand what the attraction is, even through the danger, the emotional and physical abuse, and the general messed-uppedness of the protagonists. Rimbaud is flat-out fascinating to anyone who has read his poetry and knows a little of his life and the seemingly impossible dichotomies of it. None of that comes through here. Neither Rimbaud nor Verlaine are likable in the least — and I am not one of those viewers who needs to like the leads to get something out of it, but you have to be given reasons, starting points, something.

Some of the intricacies of the interaction have the potential of showing how this is a beautiful disaster, but I am left feeling annoyed and sick of the whining and mostly just blankly disappointed despite the occasional glimmer.

The costume and environs are just right and well done. The acting itself is… well, I feel like the director is probably responsible for much of the disconnect. The events are pretty much preordained seeing as how they follow actual history so closely.

The distance is probably unintentional, but it kills any interest I might have had in the interaction between the two protagonists stone dead long before Verlaine takes a shot at Rimbaud and that’s a pity. The overall end result is disappointing, to say the least. It just doesn't work. It's unfortunate but there you go. I recommend you read the poetry instead.

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