"Total Eclipse" is the art-house equivalent of "Casey at the Bat." Considerable ability has gone into a potential home run scenario, but the result is a big whiff all the way around.
Written by Christopher Hampton, responsible for "Dangerous Liaisons" and the upcoming "Carrington," directed by Agnieszka Holland, best known for "Europa, Europa" and "The Secret Garden," and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis and Romane Bohringer, "Total Eclipse" can't be accused of stinting on talent.
And its story of the tortured relationship between two of France's greatest 19th-Century poets, Paul Verlaine (Thewlis) and Arthur Rimbaud (DiCaprio), certainly has possibilities. The result, however, is a stagy and excessive mishmash that turns their wretched lives into a costumed version of Beavis and Butt-head.
Verlaine was already an established poet but not very happy when 16-year-old Rimbaud first wrote to and then visited him in Paris in 1871. Addicted to absinthe, married to a young woman (Bohringer) he doesn't care for and furious at the poverty that forces him to live with his stuffy in-laws, the older man considers both Rimbaud's new style of poetry and his rebellious lifestyle to be welcome changes.
Given that DiCaprio plays Rimbaud as a 19th-Century version of the Jim Carroll of "The Basketball Diaries," viewers may choose to think otherwise. Hampton's script and DiCaprio's acting create an obsessively self-obsessed Rimbaud whose every action exudes arrogance and prideful satisfaction.
Verlaine, however, finds him liberating both poetically and personally. He loves it when Rimbaud eats with his fingers, and when his young friend stands on a table and urinates on a lesser poet's work, the older man is beside himself with joy. This, Verlaine thinks, is how life should be lived. He leaves his wife, whom he has periodically abused, and embarks on a sexual relationship with his muse.
Made for each other, Verlaine and Rimbaud behave abominably to everyone in sight, much to their mutual amusement. Finally, having alienated all potential victims, they end up behaving abominably toward each other, kind of like an Oprah episode on "Poets Who Can't Get Along." Between Verlaine's whining and wheedling and Rimbaud's pouting snits, it's amazing either one ever has the time to write.
In fact, one of "Total Eclipse's" numerous difficulties is that it provides only a minimal idea of what each man's poetry is about, shedding neither heat nor light on their lives and offering no reason to care about their infantile antics. The film's entire team has so bought into the shopworn myth that geniuses must misbehave that no one has escaped unscathed. The script may insist that "the only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable," but those who wade through "Total Eclipse" will be able to cite at least one exception.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some startling violence. Times guidelines: The most disturbing violence is directed toward women.
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Leonardo DiCaprio: Rimbaud
David Thewlis: Verlaine
Romane Bohringer: Mathilde
Dominique Blanc: Isabelle
Released by Fine Line Features. Director Agnieszka Holland. Producer Jean-Pierre Ramsay. Executive producers Jean-Yves Asselin, Staffan Ahrenberg, Pascal Faubert. Screenplay Christopher Hampton. Cinematographer Yourgos Arvanitis. Editor Isabell Lorente. Costumes Pierre-Yves Gayrand. Production design Dan Weil. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
* In limited release throughout Southern California.