Did ‘Total Eclipse’ Deserve Leonardo DiCaprio?

If you remember back to my Young Leonardos post last December, you’d know that actual physical resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio was only of the criteria to qualify for inclusion (although admittedly, it was the most important one). Since Leo is one of my definitive favorite actors, another criteria was that, like him, contenders had to have shown a certain willingness to not only choose safe and predictable roles suitable for pretty-boys looking for a shortcut to super-stardom. This made it impossible not to include Emile Hirsch, who seems to wander off (pun unintended) into more substantive territory even with his mainstream movies (Into the Wild), and Michael Pitt and Kevin Zegers also made the list, courtesy of The Dreamers and Transamerica, respectively. They all followed the example set by Leonardo, just like he followed the examples of River Phoenix (My Own Private Idaho), Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy) or even Johnny Depp (Ed Wood, Dead Man) before him.

The legacy of independent-minded, not necessarily career building moves that DiCaprio hands over to the next generation, includes such movies fairly well-received movies as This Boy’s Life and The Basketball Diaries , but also the movie that’s going to be our topic for today, Total Eclipse. Before we get to that movie in particular, however, I’ll just stop to re-emphasize a point I made when reviewing the porn-themed short film compilation Destricted a while back: Being generally sympathetic to an actor’s ability and willingness to choose unconventional roles, we run the risks of over-emphasizing the supposedly controversial potential of this or that theme, to the point where the provocation itself becomes a sign of quality, regardless of the quality of the movie or the performance. I mention this because even though DiCaprio delivers a good performance in Total Eclipse, the somewhat controversial nature of the gay theme is not nearly enough to make Total Eclipse a good movie.

DiCaprio plays the young, rebellious French 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud, the gay lover of his mentor and fellow symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). Verlaine, drawn to Rimbaud not only for his beauty but also for the refreshingly uncompromising contempt with which he regards the sedate upper-class circles Paul has married his way into, finds in him someone who will fearlessly challenge his testy temperament. While not exactly unhappy in his marriage, Verlaine is so deeply involved with Rimbaud on an artistic and emotional level, that his marriage suffers tremendously. At the core of the story lies the troubled Verlaine’s attempts to balance his public appearance with his restlessly adventurous soul, constantly fearing that in the process, he’s not in control of neither.

Or at least, that’s was I suppose Total Eclipse is meant to be about. Unfortunately, it feels like director Agnieszka Holland is so fascinated with the idea of the poet as an archtypical crazy genius (the artist so absorbed in his art that his people skills slowly wither away) that she forgoes any opportunity to make either Verlaine or Rimbaud seem like real, three-dimensional people. Thus, although David Thewlis’ does a heckuva job making Verlaine an unpredictable and at times downright scary bundle of quirks and inner demons, and although DiCaprio’s stubbornly self-conscious Rimbaud is every bit as magnetic as he needs to be, the script never manages to answer any of my questions: Why exactly, does Verlaine so often resort to violence? What makes Rimbaud descend into the same emotional limbo as Verlaine? And how am I supposed to care for their love story if Verlaine is such an underdeveloped character that I end up agreeing with Rimbaud’s mocking assertion that he is really just an ugly old man in fear of being alone?

I suppose the poet-as-crazy-genuis meme is meant to say something about the clash between two artistic egos, but that point is never dealt with in a way that makes it a particularly credible or interesting key to the Rimbaud/Verlaine relationship. At every point, the movie opts for the vague and pretentious, in the process amassing so many loose ends that the emotional distance between me and the movie’s protagonists simply becomes too great. Of course, this could theoretically be an intertextual metaphor for the novelty and radicalism of the poetry they wrote, but apart from being a far-fetched interpretation, it would also be hard to prove, since the poetry  actually is practically nowhere to be found. This stands out to me as an especially strange choice: On the one hand you offer you no other key to understanding the Rimbaud/Verlaine relationship than the crazy-genius/rivalry meme, while on the other hand, you never make the poetry an explicit part of the story. Which leaves us with either an explicit but still underdeveloped gay love story between two hard-to-understand and not terribly nice people, or a straightforward period piece. Neither approach unearths an interesting movie.

With the benefit of hindsight, Total Eclipse has value as a Leonardo DiCaprio movie for two reasons: First, it can be seen as another step toward perfecting the restless young rebel of This Boy’s Life and The Basketball Diaries that you could also see signs of in both What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and later movies like Marvin’s Room and even Romeo + Juliet. It takes real talent not only to make a character out of this script work relatively well, but also to make us believe and accept that a teenager could actually manipulate and control a much older man the way Rimbaud exerts his power over Verlaine.

Second, it’s Leonardo DiCaprio, stupid. If I didn’t understand much of anything about what constituted Rimbaud’s muse/rival relationship with Verlaine, I could certainly understand the pure physical attraction. I know, I know, he was out to prove that he was something more than a pretty face, and I actually started this piece by praising some of his predecessors for honoring that very tradition and ambition, but hell: When the movie itself is mostly pretentious drivel, don’t tell me it doesn’t help that the angelic Leonardo proved that probably is the best-looking young man in my lifetime. We’re talking almost two full hours here. Of course it helps! Whether Total Eclipse deserved him, see that’s another matter.

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11 Responses to Did ‘Total Eclipse’ Deserve Leonardo DiCaprio?

  1. jay says:

    I quite enjoyed Total Eclipse , I of course loved Leo’s performance , he seemed to have such fun with Rimbauds spontaneous nature . Beauty wise Leo was at peak perfection around this time for me .

    I recall reading that orginally River Phoenix was originally going to play Rimbaud and John Malkovich was to be Verlaine , that would have been very cool to see . I’m very much looking foward to see Leo in Chris Nolan’s ‘Inception’.

    • queerlefty says:

      River would have been really interesting as Rimbaud. Same with Malkovich as Verlaine. That said, I don’t think it was acting-wise that this movie failed.

  2. I knew nothing of Rimbaud’s life at the time I saw the film, but I enjoyed it overall. I thought it had a certain poetic feel to it, especially the (one-sided?) relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine. I thought the two leads’ characters were three-dimensional people. It’s just that they were too cooped up in their own vanity, self-loathing and neuroticisms. To me, watching Leo was just icing on the cake. Even if he wasn’t in it, I think I still would’ve enjoyed it.

    I have yet to see “Marvin’s Room” and “This Boy’s Life.” It’s been in my Netflix queue in forever.

    • queerlefty says:

      I love your input and I see your point, but I disagree. I supposed that I found forced and pretentious what you found poetic. To me, upon realizing that very human being is so unique that any attempt to make them into movie character would result in some destilled reductionism, this movie retreated too far in the opposite direction; reducing its main characters to just a few, overly broad characteristics.

      I still think it was fairly interesting as a failure, though.

  3. queerlefty says:

    I haven’t seen ‘Marvin’s Room’ in several years, and I sort of fear that it’s a little too sentimental for my taste now, but it stills ignites some nostalgic feelings.

  4. CoCo says:

    I was ,in a way, scared to watch the movie at first……because I didn’t know what kind of “STUFF” would be in it. After I watched it,though,I thought it was a beautiful story of two 19th century poets who found eachother through their remarkable poetry.For me,the movie itself was great;it contained the high powered emotion of the two poets who, in the end, couldn’t be together because of Verlaine’s love for looks and fear of being alone ,and Rimbaud’s love for life,freedom,and strong will of “originating the future.” It’s a very different movie , but in a good way! It’s usage of vivid vocabulary and that sort-of “passion for living” mood of it makes for the purfect movie in my book…..guess you realized by now that I enjoyed it :) Thanks 4 Listening !!!!

    • queerlefty says:

      Thanks for your comment, even though I vehemently disagree. Where you saw ‘high powered emotion’, I saw a pomposity that relied all too heavily on cliched perception of the myth of the artist as a suffering idealist. It had some strong moments, but they came mostly from strong acting.

  5. CoCo says:

    Well,you’ll have to admit…..he is an extremely good actor! :)

    I vehemently disagree. Don’t misinterpret me,though,I respect your opinion! I’m just weird I guess. I THINK (remember the word “think”) that the “real life” story of the two men DID have some “high powered emotion”……..and the fact that Leonardo and David were good actors in the movie,as you did say, highlights it.Since we’re talking about THE MOVIE in the first place……not the actual event. We wern’t alive then (1800’s) to know how the ACTUAL story went anyway. All the facts we have to rely on are the the things we see on the internet and in movies.We both know the two are known for stretching the truth about some things. Unless Mr. Rimbaud and Mr. Verlaine come back to talk to me from beyond the grave or something……….or to tell me how the story REALLY went down………… I would never be so presumptious as to judge if they acted badly in the movie or not. My opinion is that since Arthur and Paul have already croaked -n- all……and since all the cast and crew had to fall back on was uncertian things that they did research on………I THINK they did their best with this movie.Your best is all you can offer to anything! So I THINK they did a great job with this film.

    I would like to close with this saying that I’m quite fond of : “Opinions are like bellybuttons,everybody’s got one.” I LUV THAT SAYIN!!!!! It’s so Swana-Pay :) Again,thanks so much for ur comment -n- for listening to my opinion about “Total Eclipse” !!!!

  6. CoCo says:

    I’m back again. Do you know what I think………….I think the man who played Mathilde’s father in the movie “Total Eclipse” resembles Paul Verlaine more than David Thewlis does. Well, at least he does from the old black-n-white pics I saw of the real Paul Verlaine while I was doing “spare time research” on the whole thing, anyway.

    I was watching it this morning when I realized this matter.

    You should check it out for yourself…..it’s quite interesting, actually!

  7. Lili7 says:

    My english is pretty bad so I’d just tell you this: if you really want to understand rimbaud’s character you’d better read his poems ;) this man is not just A genius he’s THE genius :p but my english is too poor and I can’t explain it :( I think the film is quite good, I really liked dicaprio’s acting but the script is totally in the mood of the “Rimbaud’s myth” which is just the worst way of spoiling his genius. I mean that he’s not just a young poet who wanted to be unconventional and had “immoral relations” with an older one. Anyway it’s impossible to make a good film on the life of such a great poet. But it’s a pity that the film only focused on the gay-relation. I’m not sure you’ll get what i meant to say, I don’t have the right words to express myself :( A French author said that it’s not possible to talk about complicated ideas with simple words. But that’s not Rimbaud’s opinion:) But I don’t have his gift and a few in history had ;) Thank you for having listenened to me with my poor english :p I’d just want to know where I can find the dvd because it’s no longer available in Belgium :( thanksssss <333

    • queerlefty says:

      I think we agree on what didn’t work about it, Lili. Your point about the ‘Rimbaud myth’ is a good one, and fairly close to my own observation about how the movie, in my opninion, reduces Rimbaud to this sort of cliched ‘mad artist’ myth. But although I actually liked this movie less than you did, I have to disagree with your view that it’s impossible to make a good feel out of someone of Rimbaud’s genius. I don’t think that’s true – although I cannot come up with a counterexample at the moment – and at the very least, we owe it to the art of cinema to believe that it isn’t true. If we resign to expecting such biographical movies to be as flawed as this one, I fear that we’ll end up with exactly this cliche-ridden portrait as the best we can get.

      Thanks for the comment.

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