“Dogs are all liberals” – Rimbaud
“He [Rimbaud] was my great and radiant sin” – Verlaine
“I’m faithful to all my loves, because once I love them, I will always love them” – Verlaine
“The only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable” – Rimbaud
A favorite topic among bibliophiles is what one literary figure might have said to another (see above) had they ever met. Writers and philosophers living far apart on our history’s spectrum are particularly popular themes, with one writer even gaining eternal renown for a work composed of conversations between famous writers and philosophers that reads more like opposing editorials. Other students of literature like to spend an inordinate amount of time imagining the private lives of the writers they admire. For them, the being of a famous writer cannot emerge solely from his works as a rosebush may not live without its thorns, topsoil, or weeds. It is not enough that we must subject great works upon their copyright’s expiration to editorial whims, we must also find new and silly ways to enter the lives of people whom we could not know and whose legacy is a pile of books that we often cannot bring ourselves to read attentively. We must understand them as people first and writers later. If how they talked, how they ate, and how they showed each other affection are more important than their literary production, so be it. Their legacies will be forever tainted and we share only part of the blame. Which brings us to this fine film about two legendary French poets, Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) and Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio).
The year, we are told, is 1871. Germany unites into the most powerful state Continental Europe has seen since the Romans; Verlaine is twenty-seven but already fading in poetic authority (poets then were like tennis stars now, washed up at thirty); Rimbaud is ten years his junior and the most phenomenal of Wunderkinder. This is not a love story, or at least not one in which there is any tenderness or caring. A poet of genius in his own right if more a product of his era, Verlaine cannot do much more than get viciously intoxicated, vent on his ugly but very rich wife, and gaze at the beautiful lad who keeps asking him for small favor after small favor. He loves Rimbaud as a younger, more gifted version of himself, one unafraid to challenge society’s mores. Nevertheless, it is remarkable how humdrum Rimbaud’s notions of novelty seem, and how consistently a man of such talent is portrayed as a boor and a bully. The two while away their time in absinthe bars (roughly a barrel gets consumed during the film), smoking, flirting, and obviously planning something that will ruin both of their lives. They shift and totter between hatred and symbiotic need, and finally separate once Verlaine, in his umpteenth booze-ridden fit, decides to play William Tell with dear Arthur, who of course has too little respect for Verlaine’s promises to pay his threats any attention. Verlaine is arrested, charged with being a sodomite, and jailed for two years. He is released having served his full sentence and become a devout Catholic. And at this point, Rimbaud is far away in both body and spirit.
One might suppose that the whole endeavor would sink into melodrama in a gooey, nauseating way. Yet a certain dignity obtains throughout. And whatever our knowledge of the times and, more importantly, of the poetic oeuvres of the two men, we are compelled to watch even if nothing really happens. Did what is depicted really take place? Should we alter our impressions of the oeuvres of the two artists accordingly? A more celebrated film employs the same technique of portraying a young ingénue as a sort of rock star, the difference being that Rimbaud’s upstart irreverence curiously resembles the ignorant kitsch of Soviet and hippie manifestos. Amadeus was a rock star, insofar as he was worshiped as a celebrity who could do no wrong upon the stage. Methinks the problem lies with the fiction, not the reality. I am duly aware that the intent of the film was to be authentic and that the happenings portrayed have their basis in the correspondence between the poets. Even so, the characters, especially Rimbaud, are too one-sided, evincing modern cinema’s endemic aversion to subtlety. The deep and recurrent problem with such recreations, as in so many historical novels, is that the literary revivalist has no inkling of the inner lives of the artistic creatures he re-imagines because he has little relationship to their work, where their true biography is found. The result is that extraordinary persons are obliged to be understood in our terms, not theirs, and live out the plainest of soap opera ditherings.
That being said, Thewlis and DiCaprio are marvelously cast in terms of looks and gestures. Yet time and again they are superceded by Rimbaud's bohemian vulgarities which, as could be expected, devolve into ridiculous showmanship. By many indications, Rimbaud was mild-mannered (some sources do portray him as the prototypical enfant terrible), if impetuous and all too ready to enthrall people with his genius. The Rimbaud of Total Eclipse is only obnoxious, only self-absorbed, only prone to immediate gratification like all of the young and the guileful. Verlaine, on the other hand, is without exception a sniveling, pathetic meatball of middle-age insecurities battling issues of sexual identity and creative choices. But you cannot be a great poet if you are completely and utterly immoral. The on-screen Rimbaud hasn’t a redeeming quality about him and temporizes awkwardly whenever asked to express any of his verse. Such does not a poet make. In the end, Rimbaud comes off acting his age – although his compositions are of an artist of much broader experience – with the manipulative properties of a pretty woman rather than a man of letters (most evident in his lament that he has never seen the sea). Come to think of it, perhaps that might not be terribly distant from the truth.