That was the movie in which DiCaprio played the very young, self-taught poetry savant Arthur Rimbaud, who retired at 19! I remember giving Leo a good review when it was controversial to say that he was a talented actor. It seems obvious now, but it was not always so. Like many others, I thought he failed in some of his early efforts, but whether through design or good casting or mere serendipity, he nailed this one.
My contemporaneous review follows the break:
Total Eclipse portrays the relationship of the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud to his mentor and homosexual lover, Paul Verlaine. The title refers to the fact that the modernist Rimbaud, while still only in his mid-teens, completely eclipsed his more traditional mentor as a poet. More important than Rimbaud's greater talent was the fact that Rimbaud's revolutionary style was the one that shaped the future, and eventually rendered Verlaine's old-fashioned romantic poetry archaic and irrelevant.
Rimbaud was a child prodigy, ala Mozart, but from an unexpected setting. Unlike Mozart, who was educated to be what he became, Rimbaud grew up in a farming family, and taught himself everything, with the guidance of some sympathetic local teachers who recognized his brilliance and gave him access to their books. He is considered the first modernist, as important to poetry as the impressionists were to art, but his reputation is based entirely on his work as a teenager. He quit writing at 19, and his retirement wasn't just the usual posturing bullshit. He really quit forever.
"I tried to invent new flowers, new planets, new flesh, new languages.
I thought I had acquired supernatural powers.
I called myself a magician, an angel, free from all moral constraint.
Well, I shall ask forgiveness for having lived on lies, and that's that."
And that WAS that.
He walked away from Paris, became a trader in Africa and ran a successful business pretty much until his fatal tumor took over his life. He successfully avoided European society, civilized talk, culture, the arts, and writing. And if memory serves, I think he lived those post-artistic years completely as a heterosexual.
I think I have pointed out several times that I got interested in Rimbaud after I first saw this movie. I read everything I could find on him or by him, and I eventually realized that the casting of Leo D. was a masterstroke. DiCaprio IS Rimbaud. If you read the physical description of Rimbaud you could be reading about Leo. If you read up on what his personality was like, you realize that this role required no acting at all from Leo. DiCaprio may or may not be Kenneth Branagh in the acting department, but he did a good job on the innocent-looking, arrogant, self-absorbed, foul-mouthed, feral, boorish, reckless, immature, drug-addled genius who "decided to originate the future". That wasn't lousy acting. That was a perfect portrayal. That's the way Rimbaud was, as bad at being human as he was good at writing poems.
DiCaprio took a lot of grief from the critics for his American accent, and that was totally unjustified. There is no reason why a British accent is more appropriate than an American accent for playing a Frenchman. For that matter, the American accent makes just as much sense as the usual cinema cliché of having someone portray a Frenchman by speaking very bad English with a heavy French accent. The real Rimbaud came from the provinces, and I suppose his pronunciation would have sounded unsophisticated to Parisians, and they would have sounded stuffy to him. In that regard, it makes a lot of sense for DiCaprio to sound casual and American while David Thewlis sounded stuffy and British as Verlaine. What made no sense at all in that context was having Verlaine's wife speak very bad English with a heavy French accent. (The actress, Romane Bohringer, is really French.) Since Verlaine's speech pattern established the convention that upper crust British speech was standing in for bourgeois Parisian speech, the casting of his wife should have followed this convention.
Is the movie worth watching if one is not especially interested in 19th century French poetry? Good question. The answer is "probably not".
- It centers around the homosexual relationship of two thoroughly despicable, but highly talented men. It shows them as they were, not as people wish them to have been. Not many people will find it pleasant to pass two hours in their company.
- It's a pretty good movie but it didn't know where to end. It must have about a half-hour of anticlimax at the end (after Verlaine shot Rimbaud), and the director didn't know how to present that within the narrative structure so she really resorted to a trite technique. Many years after the main story, old man Verlaine met Rimbaud's old sister in a cafe, and the sister narrated the remainder of the story in a flashback with a voice-over.
- The other main weakness of the movie's internal structure is that it portrays Paul Verlaine as a totally repulsive person, and gives the viewer no understanding of why such a man was loved by both his beautiful teenage genius poet, and his sexy, rich, and much younger wife.