The Austin Chronicle

Total Eclipse

Rated R, 110 min. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis, Romane Bohringer, Dominique Blanc.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 3, 1995

This never less-than-fascinating bio-pic recounts the relationship between the two 19th-century French poets, Arthur Rimbaud (DiCaprio) and Paul Verlaine (Thewlis). Theirs, of course, was a fascinating relationship: two great poets who could read between each other's lines. Verlaine played the role of mentor to the astonishing young upstart Rimbaud, whose writing stemmed from his principle of tasting all the experiences life had to offer and sating his senses to the fullest. In the film, Verlaine, who is respectably married and living in his in-laws' home with his young pregnant wife Mathilde (Bohringer), is also an abusive alcoholic. Furthermore, he finds himself passionately drawn to the 16-year-old Rimbaud, who flouts all conventions and social rules. The two poets embark on an unbridled sexual and spiritual experience -- an affair that soars to great heights (fueled by absinthe) before crashing quite badly. Verlaine chooses to cut himself off from his bourgeois background and, eventually, his wife divorces him. Then, after a stormy couple of years, Rimbaud threatens to leave and Verlaine responds by shooting his lover in the hand. During his two-year imprisonment for his actions, Verlaine embraced Catholicism, though he relapsed in his later years into alcoholism and general debauchery. Rimbaud quit writing at the age of 19 and spent his remaining years (he died when he was 37) wandering through exotic places. Screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Carrington) and director Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa, The Secret Garden) were astute to recognize the dramatic movie potential inherent in this historic story… a story whose time may finally have come. Also, DiCaprio (The Basketball Diaries, This Boy's Life) and Thewlis (Naked, Life Is Sweet) are phenomenal to watch. Fearless about appearing onscreen as mean, cruel, or ugly, they both rip through the screen with wild-eyed abandon. The story excels in its portrait of obsessive love and desire. Where the tale falls down is in its portrait of two comrades in poetry, the writers who inspired each other to new levels of artistry and dwelled with the muses wherever they cohabited. Depicting the art of writing is more difficult on film than depicting the passions of the heart, but in this particular case, both aspects are inextricably wed. One aspect without the other is merely a partial eclipse.

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