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‘Total Eclipse’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 03, 1995

As the poet Arthur Rimbaud in Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland's engrossing "Total Eclipse," Leonardo DiCaprio is like a little boy staring damnation in the face and refusing to blink. With his blond locks falling into his pale, defiant eyes, DiCaprio's Rimbaud is not merely "the voice of the future," as his friend Paul Verlaine describes him; he is also the archetypal bohemian—cruel, self-destructive and fiendishly manipulative.

When he first comes to Paris in 1871, Rimbaud is only 17 and still, at heart, a rude country boy. He has traveled to the French capital from his home in Charleville at the urging of Verlaine (played with acid self-loathing by David Thewlis), the toast of the Left Bank literary establishment. After reading a sampling of Rimbaud's poetry, Verlaine was impressed by its bluntness and passion; once he meets the young man, he discovers that his rebelliousness extends beyond his work.

Verlaine is irresistibly drawn to Rimbaud's fervent iconoclasm, and this same antisocial volatility is what seems to have attracted Holland as well. In such films as "Europa, Europa" and "Olivier, Olivier," Holland has shown a special sensitivity to the lives of young people, and in a sense, Rimbaud is another of her outlaw children. A blasphemer in the holy church of great books, he cares nothing whatsoever for Literature. For him, the writing is everything. And in his pursuit of the raw truth, he is a fearless adventurer, bent on taking himself to the limits of experience.

Rimbaud believes that a poet must "make himself a seer by a long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses." And disordering the senses is precisely what he does. Using every available vice, including absinthe, opium and prodigious bouts of sex, Rimbaud plunges into dissolution like a man possessed. When Verlaine takes Rimbaud to a gathering of literary greats, Rimbaud takes as much pompous nonsense as he can before turning the sedate affair into a barroom brawl.

Verlaine, on the other hand, is a perfect bourgeois, living with his wife, Mathilde (Romane Bohringer), in her parents' comfy, middle-class home. As the relationship between the two poets deepens, though, Rimbaud urges Verlaine to cast off the shackles of conventionality and join him in his search for the absolute. And join him he does, at least for a while, leaving behind his sheltered life and pregnant wife.

As Holland sets it up, the central conflict here is between Rimbaud and Mathilde, who fights the reckless poet for her husband's affections. Mathilde represents convention, domesticity, family—all of which Rimbaud despises. And certainly, the poet seems almost as determined to destroy the man's wife as he is to seduce the man himself. But Verlaine isn't up to his friend's uncompromising lifestyle.

As Verlaine himself observes, he may be a great poet, but Rimbaud is a genius. DiCaprio is daring and unguarded in his performance as Rimbaud, and Thewlis does an astounding job of showing the despair of an artist whose time has passed. What Holland seems to be saying is that it's Rimbaud's wild romantic excesses that make him a genius; without them, he's just a good writer. Holland and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (who wrote "Dangerous Liaisons" and also happens to be a Rimbaud scholar) seem to admire the man as much for his drunkenness and bad manners as for his art. Holland appears to see Rimbaud as a precursor of later rebel artists; he's like a 19th-century Jim Morrison—a rock star before his time.

Total Eclipse is rated R.

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