Friday, November 19, 2021

Agnieszka Holland | Total Eclipse

choosing the body

by Douglas Messerli

Christopher Hampton (screenplay, based on his play), Agnieszka Holland (director) Total Eclipse / 1995 

It must have seemed like a producers dream to be able to sign Polish director Agnieszka Holland, hot on the heels of her very successful 1991 film Europa, Europa and the respectably received Olivier, Olivier of 1992 to make a film based on a script by a 1967 play by British playwright Christopher Hampton who had successfully adapted Dangerous Liaisons for Stephen Frears 1988 film and more recently had written the book for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical Sunset Boulevard (1993). That same year, actor David Thewlis, who signed on for one of the major roles, had a break-out role in Mike Leigh’s film Naked; Romane Bohringer in 1992 had received positive reviews as an outstanding newcomer in Claude Miller’s The Accompanist and Cyril Collard’s Savage Nights. The US then pretty-boy actor Leonardo DiCaprio had garnered attention for two roles in 1993 in This Boy’s Life and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and in 1997 would become a star in Titanic. And all three were willing to perform portions of their roles in the nude.

     And the subject? That was the icing on the cake: the never before filmed story—one that would previously have been banned in the US and many European countries—concerned the notorious relationship between French poet Paul Verlaine, for the French a writer of even greater significance than Oscar Wilde, who was sentenced to prison for 2 years, 1873-1875, for sodomy and shooting his then 16 or 17-year old lover Arthur Rimbaud, who was not simply a young beauty—like Lord Alfred Douglas for whom Wilde served an equal amount of time (1895-1897) for the same crime—but an enfant terrible who through his own poetry became one of the most important influences on 20th century poetry and poetics. These two did not only sleep together, but wrote together, and fought—with voice, fist, knife, and gun—together, creating a scandal wherever they went, from Paris, to London, and on to Brussels.

       Producer Jean-Pierre Ramsay-Levi and co producers Philip Hinchcliffe and Cat Villiers were able to raise almost 7 million Euro to make the film. What could go wrong?

       Well, nearly everything, beginning with Hampton’s atrocious script which, while focusing on the sexual threesome hinged by the bisexual Verlaine, forgot that his central characters were poets and had no idea how to convey how their writing—of which we only get a couple of small snippets—was the force that brought Verlaine and Rimbaud into the same bed. Since Verlaine insists that his wife has neither a brain nor a soul, Hampton gives her very few lines to speak, and Holland concentrates on what several critics described as her voluptuous bosom and attractive posterior, giving poor Bohringer no chance to demonstrate any of her thespian talents.

       Given the sentences he is forced to utter Thewis, very much looking like a young Verlaine, tries his best to hew out a human being of the marble cypher that Hampton has made of the already established poem. Presenting Verlaine primarily as an emotionally unstable alcoholic without even attempting to explain that poet’s accomplishments or his attraction to either his wife or the young country boy who has so impressed him that he is at first determined to ensconce him into his father-in-law’s household, Verlaine’s actions appear to be almost random and without logic, although perhaps his real life behavior was both illogical and impetuous. Still, we want to know why this fairly establishment figure went so suddenly astray. A vague reference to his involvement the year before in a radical political action explains nothing.

       And then there is DiCaprio, who at this time in his career clearly hadn’t a clue how to act, playing his version of Rimbaud like he were a spoiled brat determined in his attempt to “be a genius...[and] originate the future” to peevishly and impetuously challenge all current forms of social order just like any 16 year old street kid might—but with a far more untested sense of superiority. In his flat California accent (often described as the most normative and least eccentric accent of any state) Hampton and Holland demand the young actor offer up (mostly to Verlaine) aphorisms and seemingly profoundly conceived concepts such as: “Don’t insult your victims by feeling sorry for them.”;  “With you weakness involves brutality as well, doesn’t it?”;  “My happiest days were when I ran away from home. I’ve never seen such long and colored days. And I could never get far enough.”; “I suppose you think I’ve just been lying here all these weeks in a state of paralyzed slough?”; “My search for universal experience has led me here.”; “You’re here because you have be. But I’m here because I chose to be.”’ “[You’re] a bald aging drunken poet who clings to me because his wife won’t take him back.”; and finally, as if he were suddenly performing the role of the syphilis-stricken Oswald Alving in Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, “I want the sun. I want the sun. Do you understand me, I want the sun!”

      Those statements, in turn, pretty much summarize the plot. Man married to his beautiful young pregnant bride meets boy, becomes ridiculously infatuated by him, moves the boy and himself out of the house, begins to have sex with the kid, and soon runs off on a tour of Europe together with the brat whose greatest skill, as Roger Ebert described him, is “in finding new ways to make obnoxiousness fresh.”

      Even though Verlaine—upon meeting with Rimbaud’s sister bent on having him return all of her brother’s manuscripts so that she and her mother can burn them—insists that together he and Rimbaud did their very best writing, we would never have a clue of what that writing consisted of after watching Total Eclipse. As Todd McCarthy put it in his Variety review: “According to this film, the exchange of bodily fluids, not of intellectual and artistic ideas, was the important thing between these two legendary poets.”     

      I suppose we of the LGBTQ community should be appreciative that at least this film finally demonstrates that Verlaine and Rimbaud did actually take off their clothes and have sex; indeed even the Belgium court presumably proves through examination that Verlaine gave and received anal sex (how they proved the former, let alone the latter is a mystery to me). But frankly I’ve never been a fan of the young DiCaprio’s pudgy good looks and his ass doesn’t really turn me on, nor for that matter does Thewis’ penis, although I’ll admit Bohringer does have sensuous breasts. 

     What I’ve truly always wanted to know is how did this bodily filthy, pipe-smoking, farm lad lure a socially conscious married man to let him stick his cock up his ass. But then, Verlaine, who sets fire to his wife’s hair, tosses a baby crib with his son in it halfway across a room, chugs down glasses of absinthe like it were so many pints of beer, proves he loves the boy by letting him stab a knife into his open palm, and shoots a hole through the same boy’s hand when he threatens to leave him is obviously not a conventional socialite, and seems to have been terribly close in his predilections to someone involved in S&M.

       Still, it’s fun to see Thewis and DiCaprio thrashing around in and out of the covers, and if nothing else Holland and her cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis know how to frame images and create a series of lovely post-card like pictures. Cinematically this film is quite splendid. But in the end you have to ask about everything it says, shows, and demonstrates, what is the purpose? 

      At one point when Rimbaud has returned home to Roche, he forces his mother to sit down and read what I presume is his long poem “Une Saison en Enfer.” When his mother finishes, she lifts her head and repeats a phrase I’ve heard dozens of times from my own family members, my spouse, and even some readers: “What does it mean? I don’t understand what it’s supposed to mean,” words I’ve long ago learned to simply less pass without even an attempted answer—particularly the stock rebuttal our movie Rimbaud makes, “ It means exactly what it says, no more, no less,” which isn’t really an honest answer. But this time I wanted to ask this film’s creators the very same question.

       With ticket sales of about $340,000, I gather a lot moviegoers had similar problems. One is tempted to believe that the film’s director and writer made the same decision as did Verlaine when, near the very end of their relationship, Rimbaud says: “I offer you an archetypal choice, a choice between my body or my soul.” Despite his recent religious conversion, the elder still chooses the body. Certainly that may explain why this film lacks all soul and intellect. 

Los Angeles, November 19, 2021

Reprinted from World Cinema Review (November 2021).


No comments:

Post a Comment