In the film Total Eclipse, the older Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) meets Arthur Rimbaud’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) sister, Isabelle (Dominique Blanc), in a café in Paris where she and her mother (Nita Klein) want him to hand over any copies he has of Rimbaud’s poems. They intend to burn them because of their lewd nature. Verlaine reflects on the wild relationship he had with Rimbaud, beginning when the teenage Rimbaud sent his poetry to Verlaine and Verlaine impulsively invited him to his rich father-in-law’s home in Paris, where he lived with his young, pregnant wife. Rimbaud’s lack manners and decency scandalized Verlaine’s in-laws.
Verlaine and Rimbaud go on to have a relationship with Verlaine eventually deserting his wife. Their relationship is violent one which ends when a drunk Verlaine shoots Rimbaud and subsequently goes to prison for two years.
In prison, Verlaine converts to Christianity, much to Rimbaud’s disgust. When he leaves prison he meets Rimbaud hoping to start their relationship again. This does not happen and the two men part. Rimbaud turns his back on literature, travelling the world until he settles in Abyssinia. Rimbaud contracts cancer and dies at the age of 37.
During her conversation with Verlaine, Isabelle Rimbaud tells him that her brother brother had accepted confession from a priest before his death and so only censored versions of his poetry should remain. Verlaine only pretends to agree but has no intention of giving her the poems. Later, Verlaine, whilst drinking absinthe has a vision of the young Rimbaud.
“Furiously hallucinogenic imagery (fueled by hashish and absinthe), bourgeoisie-skewering rudeness, mysticism, proud bisexuality and an adolescent taste for despair have all served to keep Rimbaud’s legend alive and kicking.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Total Eclipse is the kind of movie that stirs thoughts and ruminations about the nature of genius, the true meaning of art, and the unfailing capacity of great people to destroy themselves and others.”
—James Berardinelli, ReelViews
Did You Know?
River Phoenix was originally intended for the part of Rimbaud, which went to Leonardo DiCaprio after Phoenix’s death. John Malkovich was initially intended to play Verlaine, but he pulled out. David Thewlis shaved part of his head especially for the film so as to look like the real Verlaine.