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.