In 1871 the poet Paul Verlaine left his wife and baby to live with an unstable boy named Arthur Rimbaud. Total Eclipse charts their abusive relationship. Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis ham it up as the drunken French poets. They strip, scream and screw. The episodic screenplay never develops their relationship beyond a Punch and Judy show. And it has absolutely no interest in poetry.
The film was a critical and financial failure. It’s best remembered now by DiCaprio completists. (“Have you seen the film where Leo tops Remus Lupin?”) After examining Oscar Wilde’s affair, I decided to revisit this disastrous pairing.
Learn more in my spoiler filled recap.
Act One: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Scene One: Dinner at the Verlaine’s. France. 1871.
ARTHUR RIMBAUD (Leonardo DiCaprio): I’m the best poet there is. And you’re all losers. BUUURP!
PAUL VERLAINE (David Thewlis): This boy’s poetry is going to change the world.
PREGNANT TEENAGE WIFE: Does he have to stay with us?
VERLAINE: SHUT UP YOU EMASCULATING WRETCH! Can’t you see he’s a young God!?
RIMBAUD: BARK! BARK! AROOOOO!!!
Scene Two: A Fancy Restaurant
VERLAINE: I’ll introduce you to my contacts so that you can get published.
POETS: Poems. Poems. Poems.
RIMBAUD: You’re all bourgeois posers, man! Screw this!
(Rimbaud attacks the poets with a cane. Then pees on the floor.)
RIMBAUD: I’M KING OF THE WORLD!!!
Scene Three: A Rented Room in France
RIMBAUD: Forget them. You can support me while I write.
VERLAINE: Why do I put up with you?
(Rimbaud strips naked.)
VERLAINE: Fair enough. So why does my wealthy wife put up with me?
Act Two: Punch and Judy
Scene Four: Abuse
(Verlaine abuses his wife. Then runs off with Rimbaud.)
(Rimbaud abuses Verlaine, so he goes back to his wife.)
(Rinse and repeat until…)
Scene Five: A Rented Room in Brussels. 1873
RIMBAUD: I’m leaving you. Again.
VERLAINE: Nobody walks out on me!
(Verlaine shoots Rimbaud through the hand.)
RIMBAUD: You shot my f***ing hand.
POLICE: You’re under arrest!
Act Three: A Lot of Exposition
Scene Six: A Hillside. 1875
VERLAINE: So, I spent two years in prison for sodomy and then found religion.
RIMBAUD: We’re not getting back together.
VERLAINE: Then why is the film still going?
RIMBAUD: Bored? Would it help if I got naked again?
VERLAINE: Couldn’t hurt.
Scene Seven: A Café. 1892-ish
RIMBAUD’s SISTER: Rimbaud went to Africa, developed a tumor, had his leg amputated, returned home and died.
VERLAINE: That’s a lot of exposition.
RIMBAULD’s SISTER: And now I want to burn all of his obscene poems.
VERLAINE: He wrote poems?
A Season in Hell
A good biographical film about artists should, at the very least, inspire the viewer to learn more about its subjects and the work they created. “Total Eclipse” has totally the opposite effect, of making one never want to hear about its protagonists again.Todd McCarthy, Variety
Rimbaud began his writing career at the age of 17. And ended it at the age of 20. Total Eclipse never explores whether the affair nurtured or stifled his voice. Though it credits Verlaine for preserving his work after his death.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s star was already on the rise. He captures Rimbaud’s cruelty and sex appeal. But his contemporary vibe and California accent feel out of place amidst his French and British co-stars. Roger Ebert wrote “[The film tests] DiCaprio’s skill in finding new ways to make obnoxiousness fresh. Thewlis, who usually plays the most obnoxious character in his films, is also challenged.” Two years later Leo would make history in Titanic and leave this film far behind.
Christopher Hampton wrote the Total Eclipse for the stage in 1967. His 1995 screenplay still feels like the work of an angry young man. He revels in showing both men at their worst. Without poetry they’re just a pair of mean drunks. Is that the point? Or does Hampton expect his audience to know their work before stepping through the door? Michael Wilmington, of the Chicago Tribune, put it best when he wrote “How would we react to Mozart’s life if Amadeus had left out the music?”