Listening to the 19th-century French poets in director Agnieszka Holland's Total Eclipse talk about changing the world and inventing the future is like eavesdropping on a band of ambitious Martians. Their drive and pride are recognizable, but the characters themselves are exotic and unreal — not of this world. In our day, the people who talk confidently about change and the future are designers of microchips and directors of movies about cyborgs. Poets, meanwhile, are interred, still living, in university English departments.
Like Amadeus, Total Eclipse turns on an older man's understanding that his wisdom and experience are no match for the pure genius of the younger man he's nurturing. Leonardo DiCaprio's Arthur Rimbaud is, like Tom Hulce's Mozart, a crude provincial who eats with his fingers and burps at the table. But he lacks that composer's maniacal romanticism; instead he's cold, rational, obsessed with domination — by violence, if possible. Certainly by sex.
It is a truism that great artists die young, and DiCaprio brings to the role of Rimbaud an epicene loveliness that's no more capable of surviving in the world than a beautiful snowflake. Thick, soft hair and wide hips give DiCaprio a girlish air; he plays Rimbaud as one of those precocious kids who understands the seductive power of his youthful androgyny. And he uses it, quite consciously, to seduce his would-be mentor, Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis), a fantastically ugly poet who's suffocating in the bourgeois Parisian world of lace curtains and vacuous dinner conversations.
Verlaine's gruesome looks have not prevented him from marrying well. His wife, 18-year-old Mathilde (the piercingly gorgeous Romane Bohringer), is the pliant offspring of wealthy parents. As the film opens, she's also bulgingly pregnant — yet one more link in the choke chain of family that's tightening around Verlaine's neck. No wonder he responds enthusiastically when the 16-year-old Rimbaud, languishing in the Ardennes town of Roches, sends him a few of his poems. Verlaine invites him to Paris and offers him a place to stay. The two seem to sense from the beginning that theirs will be a true symbiosis. Verlaine needs the stimulation of a young prodigy; Rimbaud needs a sugar daddy.
Christopher Hampton's screenplay has Rimbaud delivering a few too many ponderous aphorisms that have the ring of overreaching high-school essays. Of course, Rimbaud is of high-school age. But DiCaprio is a little older than the character he plays, and when making his grand pronouncements he seems callow and American, with a thin voice and a set of straight white teeth unknown in the 19th century.
Yet his explosions of young passion are perfect. He disrupts a meeting of overstuffed literary lions by shouting out, “Shit! shit!” as a pompous man reads his bad verse. Then he climbs up on the long table and takes a gratifying piss on the offending pages. This sends Verlaine into hysterical laughter; it's the sort of thing he would love to do but cannot, because he's not great and he knows it. He's just another mediocre lion who's lucky Rimbaud doesn't piss on his work. He's pimping the younger man's talent.
The love affair between the two begins with a steamy kiss, shot in a porn film-like close-up. It's plain from the start that Rimbaud is in control; the one explicit sex scene shows the boy fucking the older man, who grimaces and bears it. Verlaine's mantra throughout the movie is “I can't leave Mathilde right now.” But of course he's always leaving her — only to return drunk, embittered, and abusive. In one particularly dreadful scene he staggers into their bedroom and knocks his pregnant wife to the floor, weeping; in another, he sends the baby's cradle — and the baby — flying across the room.
Verlaine is a pathetic monster, a man who lives to fail. And drink. His special curse is that he is aware of his awfulness and makes feeble attempts at restitution. Rimbaud doesn't approve. Don't tell the people you've hurt that you're sorry, he advises Verlaine with Nietzschean certainty. It only insults them. But Rimbaud's guidance is mere cruelty. Telling a weak man to be strong is like telling a child not to cry; it's the younger poet's way of reinforcing his dominance.
To a large extent, Holland (whose humor and lyricism were more obvious in Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden) cages her movie within the set of facts on which it's based. Rimbaud and Verlaine were real people, and their affair is the stuff of literary history. Despite the manifest pathology of their coupling, they flee together — first to Brussels, then to London, where they settle in a dismal room in a boarding house. Neither one of them seems to be well-suited to domestic life, let alone a life together. Thewlis' Verlaine does not come across, finally, as homosexual so much as masochistic; he thrives on being subordinated and scorned by a boy whose young body resembles that of his young wife — a boy who has the gift he will never have, no matter how many young people he manages to sleep with.
Given his looks, it's amazing Verlaine gets any. Why Rimbaud sleeps with him instead of Mathilde is one of the movie's mysteries. Rimbaud does make one brief, energetic flirtation with her, but it goes nowhere. Although late in the film there is a scene of a grown-up Rimbaud fucking an Ethiopian woman, he is the film's wellspring of homoerotic energy.
But Total Eclipse is not a gay movie. Holland so overlays the erotic desire between the two male leads with questions of art, class, age, and power as to make the dynamic of their affair particular to them. They happen to be men, and they must be men — because men are the only people who matter in 19th-century France, and the substance of their affair is about who will matter more. To modern eyes, the stakes seem poignantly trivial. Neither of them means much of anything anymore — except as actors in a mostly psychotic love story.
Total Eclipse opens Fri, Nov. 3, at the Lumiere in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.