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Total Eclipse: The lives of the poets

Just when you thought 2020 could not get any worse, some degenerate comes along and reminds you that this year marks the 25th anniversary of Total Eclipse (1995), Agnieszka Holland’s biopic about the gay antics of those morally incorrigible poetry pals, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. The good news, I suppose, is that the pandemic has put the kibosh on all those festivities planned to celebrate the anniversary: the small-town parades, the ribbon-cuttings, the school pageants featuring children with water pistols re-enacting the famous 1873 shooting in Brussels, and so on.

Information on this very web site describes the film as ‘successful’, which it sort of was after it was released in video format, and after Leonardo DiCaprio (at this point in his career looking more jailbait than beefcake), who plays Rimbaud, scored a hit in the title role of Romeo and Juliet (1996), which sent fans of the then-22-year-old heartthrob back to Total Eclipse to watch his nude scenes on VHS and DVD. All the pieces are present for what should have been a great film: a scandalous scenario, beautiful cinematography, a stellar cast, and a world-class director (Holland’s Europa Europa (1990) won a Golden Globe for best foreign film). But somehow the pieces do not add up to a great film, and, unlike DiCaprio, the movie has not aged well. What is it about Total Eclipse that makes it so hard to watch? That’s the question I want to address here.  

Fig. 1

Just to refresh all those cinema memories you have been struggling to repress over the last twenty-five years, here is a sampling of critics’ comments at the time of the film’s original release. Janet Maslin of the New York Times said the film ‘will not be winning any new admirers for the boy wonder’ because ‘the mad romanticism of Rimbaud’s exploits has been made to look preposterous here’. Possibly, she has in mind the early scene where Rimbaud barks like a dog at a set of ceramic canines before smashing one of them, or the later scene where Rimbaud and Verlaine amid a herd of goats pretend to be goats themselves, gambolling about on all fours and eating grass (fig. 1). Desson Howe in the Washington Post found Total Eclipse ‘a pretentious, flat affair’ about a pair of ‘pseudo-arty dolts’ whose ‘smug, doomed relationship’ is ‘about as charged and compelling as the work of Rod McKuen’. Ouch! In Variety, Todd McCarthy judged ‘[t]his misbegotten look at the mutually destructive relationship’ between Rimbaud and Verlaine ‘a complete botch in all respects’. Edward Guthmann of The San Francisco Chronicle diagnosed the problem to be DiCaprio’s ‘Southern California accent’, which he finds ‘so incongruous, and so ill-matched to British actor David Thewlis, who plays his lover and fellow poet Paul Verlaine, that you never surrender to the idea that he might be Rimbaud’. This critic has a point. One of the conventions of English-language films set in foreign countries is a certain logic in the accenting. For example, in a Holocaust film the Nazis speak with a German accent and the Jews speak with a ‘Jewish’ accent. Re-watching Total Eclipse, I kept thinking that the film would have played better entirely in French with English subtitles (of course, I think the same thing about Gone with the Wind (1939)), because there is no logic whatsoever to the accenting: not only does Rimbaud speak L.A. English and Verlaine British English, Verlaine’s wife Mathilde (Romane Bohringer) and several other women speak English with a French accent.

The reviews were not universally awful, but mostly, yet some of the negative criticism includes some useful insights. Michael Wilmington in the Chicago Tribune praised the versatility of DiCaprio’s acting (his earlier performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) and The Basketball Diaries (1995) both garnered critical praise and, in the case of the former, an Oscar nomination) but said, ‘Rimbaud’s brilliance may be beyond DiCaprio – or anybody’.

Fig. 2

In the Chicago Sun Times, Roger Ebert observed that ‘Rimbaud’s ungovernable personality runs roughshod through the picture, testing our patience and DiCaprio’s skill in finding new ways to make obnoxiousness fresh’. Both Chicago critics, in other words, understand Rimbaud himself as the problem, but in different ways: the poet was both too brilliant and too obnoxious for any actor or director to manage. Wilmington of the Tribune titled his review ‘Biographical Total Eclipse Lacks Poetry’, and he is not the only critic who discerned a conflict between the lives of the poets and the art of poetry. Guthmann of the Chronicle, for instance, headed his column ‘Total Eclipse Less Than Poetic’. This is a movie about a couple of poets, so where’s the poetry?

The reviewers have really identified two problems here that are especially pertinent to issues in cinema studies. The first concerns the nature of biographical representation, the second the relationship between one art form – cinema – and another – poetry. Both problems might be reduced to one: the difference between film as a form of popular entertainment and film as a form of avant-garde art. Clearly, the biopic is part of popular entertainment, whereas the idea of cinema as poetry belongs to the avant-garde tradition. If it’s biography you want, the film should satisfy on the basis that it appears to capture most of the relevant moments in Rimbaud and Verlaine’s intense relationship over the years 1871–1873; their brief meeting in the Black Forest near Stuttgart in 1875 after Verlaine’s release from prison; and – through flashbacks facilitated by a meeting between Rimbaud’s sister Isabelle and Verlaine after Rimbaud’s death – a few intimations of Rimbaud’s life in Abyssinia, his return to France for the amputation of his diseased leg, and preparations for his abortive return to the desert. We first see the bedraggled country boy arrive in post-Commune Paris and refuse the offer of a bath; then we see him trash the haute bourgeois home of Verlaine’s father-in-law and upend a poetry reading in a fashionable salon, literally pissing on a sheaf of mediocre poems. We see Verlaine introduce Rimbaud to absinthe (fig. 2) and Rimbaud introduce Verlaine to sodomy, the younger man thrusting and the elder grimacing. Is the bizarre scene where Rimbaud pulls a cork out of a wine bottle with his shoulder blades as Verlaine holds it supposed to represent some kind of sublimated, crypto buggery (fig. 3)? Hard to say. We also see Rimbaud stab a trusting Verlaine in the palm of the hand (a form of foreplay, as it turns out) and watch Verlaine set his wife’s hair on fire – not, evidently, another example of sadistic foreplay but just sadism for sadism’s sake. We see Verlaine throw a bottle and a fish at Rimbaud in London, right before he abandons the lad and takes a boat back to France. And, of course, we see Verlaine shoot Rimbaud – in the hand, ‘poetic’ justice for the earlier palm-piercing. After the shooting, we see a Belgian judge sentence Verlaine to two years in prison for being a ‘sodomist’, whereupon Verlaine promptly corrects him: ‘sodomite’, he insists. The rest – the post-prison meeting between the two poets and the flashbacks of later episodes in Rimbaud’s life – serves as a coda, mostly, to the main narrative running from 1871 to 1873.

Fig. 3

Plato cautioned against impersonation (one meaning of mimesis) in dramatic art, but Hollywood and the motion picture industry in general loves it. Take a look at the list of Academy Awards for best actor and best actress over the last twenty years or so and you will see that the majority of winning performances are for historical figures: Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger, 2019), Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek 2018), Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman, 2018), Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, 2017), Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne, 2014), Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep, 2011), and on and on. The trend has accelerated of late, but the filmic appeal of biographical impersonation is by no means recent: for example, George Arliss won the Oscar in 1930 – only the third best-actor award – for his portrayal of Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli, oddly, has something in common with Total Eclipse, in that no one really has a frame of reference for judging the fidelity of the biographical impersonation to the historical figures represented. We have a pretty good sense that, say, Jamie Foxx’s performance as Ray Charles in Ray (2004) is spot on, and while we may be less sure of what Idi Amin was really like, Forest Whitaker’s impersonation of the cannibalistic dictator in The Last King of Scotland (2006) still strikes us as plausible, as does Daniel Day-Lewis’ impression of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012). In the case of Lincoln, it may be true that the reality of the man is outside our lived experience, but in a way, it isn’t – because there is so much historical information available to us about the sixteenth president of the United States. Possibly, the same might be said of Disraeli after all, but I am going to go out on a limb here and claim that most filmgoers will not bring to Total Eclipse the equivalent level of historical familiarity with Rimbaud and Verlaine that they bring to Lincoln and even Disraeli. As all those comments from the movie critics show, what we do know about Rimbaud and Verlaine is that they were poets, so, again, why isn’t the film more poetic?

Fig. 4

The critics’ complaint on this front has more to do with the simple fact that Christopher Hampton’s script (based on his earlier play) does not include much actual poetry that we hear read aloud. Unfortunately, we do hear a fair amount of language about poetry, as when Rimbaud says, ‘I decided to become a genius. I decided to originate the future’; or, when, in a true, manifesto-like moment, the young rebel declaims: ‘Reject romanticism; abandon rhetoric; get it right’. But what we mean by poetic cinema obviously has little to do with the actual sound of poetry. Indeed, any number of silent films, such as Germaine Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman (The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1928) or Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (Andalusian Dog, 1929), might qualify for the category. I say ‘might’ because no consensus exists as to what, precisely, constitutes this ‘cinema of poetry’, to use Pier Paolo Pasolini’s terminology from a celebrated essay of 1965, ‘Il “cinema di poesia”’. But the two surrealist films do make the point that a cinema of poetry is at base non-narrative. Whether they are also non-mimetic is a harder question, yet removal from mimesis is supposed to be another component of the aesthetic, which would seem to be a hard trick for the cine-poet to pull off using a photographic medium. In any case, just taking ‘mimesis’ in the relatively straightforward Platonic sense of ‘impersonation’ all by itself suggests a conflict between a biographical film like Total Eclipse and the idea of poetic cinema. Possibly, one of the things a cinema of poetry needs to be is dehumanized, in the sense that human beings are removed from it. The post-neorealist films of Michelangelo Antonioni suggests as much, as when one of the main characters simply vanishes mid-way through L’avventura (The Adventure, 1960), or, better, when both protagonists, male and female, disappear altogether, failing to show up at their customary meeting place at the end of L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962). The seven-minute segment at the end of the film is a tour de force of pure imagery and sounds – water trickling from a rain-barrel, trees rustling in the wind, the sounds of traffic and passengers getting off a bus. That last example shows that the poetic passage is not completely dehumanized, except, in a way, it is, because the people we see have played no part in the narrative (such as it is) of the two lovers. The people are simply part of the desolate cityscape (fig. 4), which happens to be the EUR, the formerly fascist showpiece of the new Rome. And while one might take issue with the notion of dehumanization here by arguing that the shots of the city absent the lovers creates nostalgia for them, at the very least their eclipse from the film is part of the poetry. In cinema, poetry seems a lot more possible without the people. And since a biopic like Total Eclipse, by definition, is impossible without the people, the poetry will not wind up on the screen, even if those people happen to be Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud.


David Weir

David Weir is a Goldsmiths Distinguished Visiting Scholar and Professor
Emeritus of Comparative Literature at The Cooper Union for the Advancement
of Science and Art in New York City

Posted on:Wednesday 14th October, 2020