Agnieszka Holland's overwrought Total Eclipse tries to exalt Arthur Rimbaud, the bad boy of French poetry, as the soul of raging creativity, a revolutionary so fierce and pure that no act of drunken self-destruction or wanton cruelty could bank his artistic fire or soil his reputation.
Fine. The reports about Rimbaud's teenage genius (he quit writing at nineteen and trundled off to Africa) continue to roll in a hundred years after his death, and he's still regarded (mostly by people who've never read a line of his work) as the spiritual father, lifestyle-wise, of everyone from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan to--here we go again--Jim Morrison.
The problem with the film--and it's a killer--is that all we can see up there on the screen is a snotty, sneering American punk who likes to bellow sophomoric aphorisms about disordering the senses and revolutionizing modern verse while pouring enough absinthe into himself to kill an army of Impressionist painters. It's not poor, fresh-faced Leonardo DiCaprio's fault that Holland chose him to play Rimbaud, but the talented young star of What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and This Boy's Life is miscast here to the point of absurdity. Elvis would have made as accurate a Rimbaud. So would Tab Hunter. Certainly, either one of these fellow Yankees could have worked up an equal amount of bratty petulance without showing any Mozartian splendor, any evidence of "genius" or any trace of a French accent.
By the way, Total Eclipse has nothing to do with symbolist poetry. Instead, it dotes on the stormy homosexual union between Rimbaud and the older fellow poet Paul Verlaine (Naked's David Thewlis). Let's skip the bitchy, buggering, bloody details except to say that, by comparison with this fun couple, Van Gogh and Gauguin got along like a pair of love puppies on prom night.
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The victims of Rimbaud and Verlaine's violent self-absorption included the latter's wife, Mathilde (Romane Bohringer), a rich girl who apparently existed solely to finance their various debauches and to endure constant beatings at the hands of her spouse. DiCaprio's Rimbaud is a snappish brat you feel like turning over your knee, but Thewlis's Verlaine is worse--a whining coward who deserves a decade or so with the big boys down at the Bastille. Every time one of the alleged poets, who never write anything, produces a gun or a knife, you pray he uses it to kill them both and get the damn movie over with.
Holland, author of the extraordinary Nazi-era drama Europa, Europa and The Secret Garden, among others, has taken a nasty fall here. Clearly, it's open season on literary figures at the movies, but this is an even more unlikable, wrongheaded portrait than the self-pitying drunk we saw in Dorothy Parker and the Vicious Circle or the coldhearted bastard Tom & Viv made of T.S. Eliot. Not only that, it's a movie that wants to forgive its two unforgivable jerks in the name of art and ecstasy. Doesn't wash.
As for DiCaprio, he's gone zero-for-two in 1995 playing troubled poets: Earlier this year he was the junkie street bard Jim Carroll in a mini-bomb called The Basketball Diaries, and if he knew what was good for him, he would have closed out his writing career on the spot.