Poetic Nonsense

Unlike Southeast Asia last week, Agnieszka Holland's new film Total Eclipse has nary an eclipse, total or partial, in its length. A pity--astronomical phenomena would have provided a bit of diversion.

The film concerns the tempestuous relationship between the prodigal French poet Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his older, sort-of mentor, the lyric symbolist Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis). Both men--but especially Rimbaud--are quite convinced that a true poet must defy convention and consequence, must fly in the face of society's rules.

If you guessed that this means they spend a great deal of time getting shit-faced and behaving like despicable imbeciles, take a research grant out of petty cash. A good alternative title for the picture would be TheIncredibly True Adventure of Two Jerks in Love.

Rimbaud was an authentically great poet, and Verlaine was at least a significant one, as well, but this movie will keep you from caring. The script, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his early play, provides a reasonably accurate outline of the literary portion of Rimbaud's short life. He and Verlaine began to correspond in 1871, when Rimbaud was just 17. Rimbaud became the older poet's houseguest and lover, eventually estranging Verlaine from Verlaine's new wife and child. Two impoverished years later, after much wandering, and many fights and reconciliations, the two men separated for good. Verlaine shot and wounded Rimbaud in a quarrel and spent two years in a Belgian prison, where he became a devoted Catholic--though he would later return to whoring and drinking.

Rimbaud recovered to write his masterpiece, ASeason in Hell, then spent almost a decade in Ethiopia as an explorer and trader, during which time he is not known to have written another word of poetry. He was a financial failure at these African ventures, too, and eventually returned to France, where he died of a leg tumor in 1891, at the age of 37.

Probably these lives could have formed a solid basis for a movie. But in Total Eclipse, Holland (Europa, Europa) and Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons; he has a bit in this film as the judge who sentences Verlaine) seem to be entirely taken in bya silly wheeze--that self-destructive, reckless behavior is good for one's art. They seem to actually endorse Rimbaud's excuses for his excesses. When will otherwise intelligent, formidable artists like Holland and Hampton stop falling for this sentimental nonsense? The only earthly reason we could take an interest in two such bastards as the heroes of this film (Verlaine, at one point, capriciously sets fire to his wife's hair) is that they were also fine artists. But this shapeless bore fails to convince us that they were. Holland and Hampton can't come up with a single way to connect their demented misadventures to their work.

Besides, the performances are utterly charmless. The time has come to put the firing squad on alert for Leonardo DiCaprio. He was good in This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, and as Gene Hackman's cocky son in The Quick and the Dead, but he was intolerably whiny as Jim Carroll in the lousy film of The Basketball Diaries. He's worse here, as Rimbaud. Playing two junkie-martyr poets in a row is far more indulgence than even a gifted teenager is due.

Thewlis is a really good actor, and he was amazing in the otherwise overrated Naked, but here he comes off scarcely as well as DiCaprio. Verlaine is much the more repellent of the characters, but even allowing for this, Thewlis can find no way into this weak reprobate's miserable, guilt-ridden heart, because the part basically has been conceived as an unfavorable contrast to Rimbaud's tough-minded, remorseless revelry. The only cast member who comes across at all is Romane Bohringer as Verlaine's sad, sensual wife.

The drink of choice for Verlaine and Rimbaud was the kelly-green liqueur known as absinthe, made from wormwood and so shockingly addictive that the French later outlawed it. The French outlawed it. About halfway into Total Eclipse, it crossed my mind that a few glassfuls would hit the spot.

Also on the costume-movie beat this week is thenew film Jane Austen's Persuasion, directed byRoger Michell. It's the story of Anne Elliot, the most overlooked and, thus, itneed hardly be said, the most valuable of thethree daughters of a foolish rural squire.

When Anne's family, deeply in debt, rents its country home to an admiral, Anne is brought into social contact with the admiral's brother-in-law, a handsome naval officer to whom she had been affianced some years earlier, until she was talked into breaking off the engagement because the man wasn't sufficiently rich. The tension rises from the feelings stirred up by their meetings, and by their inability, within the bounds of propriety, to express them.

Michell's film, from a screenplay by Nick Dear, is a pretty good adaptation, in the higher end of the Masterpiece Theatre style--quietly sumptuous, funny, even a little tense and urgent toward the end. Amanda Root makes a fine, sympathetic Anne, andthe rest of the cast, especially Sophie Thompson as Mary, Anne's prickly sister, issuperb.

But can any adaptation capture Jane Austen on film? Maybe the greatest prose stylist that English literature has known, she synthesized precision and wit and a sublime poetic tone in a way that has never been matched. Her plots were often affecting, her characterizations more so, and yet it was that ringing prose that truly set her apart. Hearing a synopsis of Persuasion, even seeing it performed by good actors, can no more communicate what makes Austen's artistry special than having someone tell you the story of Aida can make you hear Verdi's genius.

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