Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Agnieszka Holland
Written by Christopher Hampton
With Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis.
Biopics nearly always fail. Even the most critically acclaimed are often dreary experiences. Do you want to see Amadeus, Camille Claudel, Gorillas in the Mist, Viva Zapata!, Gandhi, or Malcolm X again? Are you looking forward to Oliver Stone’s Nixon? Good biopics about artists seem to be even rarer. When as great a director as Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa, Olivier Olivier, The Secret Garden) ends up supporting that thesis with her own biopic about an artist, one must accept it as immutable fact. Her latest film, Total Eclipse, is only slightly better than Oliver Stone’s The Doors. No more damning praise is possible.
Total Eclipse portrays the two-year love affair between the French poets Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) and Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio), which ended in a shooting and imprisonment. Verlaine, who’d been living a boring life with his intellectually inferior wife, is seduced by the creativity and freedom of the teenage Rimbaud, a poet of genius who flouts convention and obeys every impulse. His acts of rebellion include pissing on inferior poets for their crimes against art and stripping in public. No wonder Jim Morrison felt that he was Rimbaud’s reincarnation.
Oddly, considering that Holland is a much more subtle artist than Stone, the wellsprings of her art and of his political rants are similar. It makes sense for Stone to be inspired by orgiastic, self-aggrandizing, narcissistic, melodramatic, beautiful young men, because his films display similar characteristics, like self-indulgence and lack of control. Holland’s films aren’t like this. And when she was asked at a preview screening at the Film Center a few weeks ago why her films boast these young male protagonists, she replied simply: “I like them. My favorite ages for men are 15 to 20 and 80 to 100.” Holland admits that Rimbaud’s work is symbolic and difficult, and that much of his appeal is based not on his art but on his life–a wild, flashing, night moth existence spent stealing, breaking laws, having fun, and, in Holland’s own words, “drinking and fucking.”
Again, one’s reminded of Jim Morrison. The lines “Behold the Holy City, in the setting sun! / Go on! Beware of buildings still on fire! / …Board up the dying palaces, the empty halls; / The ancient trembling daylight cools your eyes. / …Hordes of bitches in heat gulp cataplasms; / The scream of houses full of gold commands: Steal!” belong to Rimbaud but could easily have been written by Morrison. The thing is, critics who attack Morrison on intellectual grounds miss the point entirely: no matter how bad his poetry may have gotten at times, he was always sexy. Try to listen to “Light My Fire” as if for the first time, focusing on the texture of Morrison’s voice: it’s pure eros, seduction as apocalypse. In Total Eclipse, Rimbaud is the poet as rock star. No matter how much he hurts other people–poets without talent, Verlaine’s wife, the masochistic Verlaine himself–he’s forgiven because he’s sexy.
One of Leonardo DiCaprio’s recent films, The Basketball Diaries, includes a ludicrous but effective scene in which he enters a classroom and shoots the teacher and all the students with a machine gun. One of the only scenes in the film that works, it succeeds not because it’s horrifying but because in his trenchcoat with his catlike eyes, puffy cheeks, and swollen lips, DiCaprio looks exactly like a runway model. In Total Eclipse, lying naked next to Verlaine, DiCaprio is an instrument of seduction as potent as his look-alike Brigette Bardot; he’s the other woman, the temptress who steals the older poet from his wife and child.
When Holland was asked why a film about two French poets was made in English with an American actor, she replied, “Because the original script by Christopher Hampton was in English, and because there are no French actors good enough. The actresses in France are very good, but the actors don’t have the technique or the daring.” Plainly Holland is attracted to DiCaprio, to his masculine energy and fearlessness: he has an aura of unattainable superiority, as if he were smiling all the time at a private joke too complex for his inferiors to understand. He refuses to tell Verlaine his love is requited, and when he asks the “reformed” Verlaine at the end of the film to choose between having his body or his soul, Verlaine answers helplessly, “Your body.”
By trying to immortalize the artist as more beautiful than everyone else, Holland makes the same mistake Stone did in The Doors. She mistakes movement for meaning, yelling for feeling. Jim Morrison onstage (as evidenced by a concert video of the Doors in Europe) stood very still, focusing all the energy around him, harnessing it, letting it build, then unleashing it briefly and allowing it to build again. In Stone’s movie, Val Kilmer as Morrison leapt all over the place, dissipating energy in unnecessary, unmotivated movement. Though DiCaprio is both better-looking and a better actor than Kilmer (he does spot-on impersonations of various animals during Total Eclipse), his hyped-up performance is similarly flawed.
The artistic impulse often comes from the ego being unleashed, from frenzied self-expression. But then discipline must form that expression into a balanced whole–art draws on the Apollonian-Dionysian duality described by Nietzsche. Today there are art forms, like rock and roll, that inhabit the Dionysian realm almost exclusively. Film is not one of them, however. Dionysian films are usually incoherent (Apocalypse Now) or flare up brightly only to continue long after inspiration has been extinguished (Natural Born Killers). Partly because they last longer than poems and can’t sustain themselves with the rhythm and beat of rock and roll, films get boring if they’re self-indulgent. Total Eclipse isn’t out of control formally, but its subject is shallow: Holland’s approach makes it impossible to comprehend that these men were great poets. She herself remarked that filmmakers lose their talent as they age: their films get worse and worse as inspiration wanes and lack of self-control breeds indulgence and decadence. The end result is dissipation, sated self-satisfaction, the bloated self-regard one sees in a Jack Nicholson interview or performance, in a Coppola travesty like Dracula, and in Stone’s The Doors.
Rimbaud too flared brightly early, composing nearly all his poems between the ages of 16 and 19, then fell silent for the rest of his life. But Holland says next to nothing about poetry, Rimbaud’s or Verlaine’s. It seems strange that the viewer gets no sense from the dialogue that Verlaine and Rimbaud produced worthwhile poetry. Instead, after ranting about their relationship for two hours, Rimbaud finally just decides to shut up. It’s a bad sign when a work of art about an artist seems most true when the artist condemns art and makes a plea for silence.
But ironically the film’s failure as a work of art about artists may be what helps it succeed as a trashy guilty pleasure. Critic David Thomson once wrote, describing the work of Michelangelo Antonioni, that his theme–“feelings of regret”–is “oddly spiked by a type of visual lust. In La Notte, for instance, Jeanne Moreau walks aimlessly through Milan, witnessing the proof of social, emotional, and intellectual disarray. Yet that walk is erotic in the way it restricts her to the status of object.” Of course, we may ask why such a restriction is erotic. Is it because, by reducing the complexity of a character, viewers are forced to contemplate only his or her physical surface? Is shallowness therefore erotic? Is the two-dimensional Jane Fonda of Roger Vadim’s Barbarella sexier than the three-dimensional Jane Fonda of Alan Pakula’s Klute? Does eroticism necessarily imply a reduction? If so, then Total Eclipse could be said to succeed in this superficial way.
Still, Holland’s work here can’t be compared to Antonioni’s. He appreciated the power inherent in the steady gaze of the camera and in stillness. In his films we contemplate faces and bodies; we absorb every movement, every nuance of expression. Hitchcock also recognized the power of the unmoving camera and unmoving subject: in Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Rear Window he gives us time to look, to absorb, to become part of the experience. In To Have and Have Not, Howard Hawks gives Bacall and Bogie plenty of time to look at each other, to smolder, but in most modern movies nobody takes this time. The supposedly erotic Showgirls, with its unimaginative “wham, bam, thank you ma’am” aerobics routines masquerading as love scenes, seems custom-made for premature ejaculators. Similarly, Holland’s characters are too frenetic. In Total Eclipse, with the exception of a few scenes, she seems to forget that the stillness of looking is the best means of communicating sexual appeal.
On the other hand, assessments of sex appeal are almost as subjective as assessments of the comic appeal of Jerry Lewis. The ultimate test for Total Eclipse will lie in the buzz it creates for DiCaprio. I thought Don Juan DeMarco a worthless trifle, but women told me that Johnny Depp had never looked better, and that they derived considerable pleasure from watching him for two hours in a sunny romp. The worthiness of Total Eclipse might be a matter of sexual orientation. Perhaps Holland has remade …And God Created Woman for the 90s.