Total Eclipse is not a pleasant movie. As many reviewers before me have pointed out years ago, the two main characters are extremely unsympathetic and watching them fight and make their lives miserable is no joy. They are played believably by David Thewlis and Leonardo DiCaprio, but that doesn’t make it easier to watch. There is no one to identify with, which might work in other movies, but here it’s just, well, unpleasant. The movie does give an interesting portrayal of its time and how poets lived and worked, but it’s too long and too repetitive in showing us suffering.
Why I do feature the movie here, despite its many flaws, is that it is so fearless in showing everything it needs and wants to show. It deals with the relationship between Verlaine (Thewlis) and Rimbaud (DiCaprio) without ever giving the feeling we’re seeing something special. They fall in love, they kiss, they have sex and the movie never shies away from any of this. As unpleasant as the movie is, it is refreshing to see that it acknowledges both the normality of homosexuality (or bisexuality if you like) and the existence of penises, which is such a big taboo in American movies. Not to talk about homosexuality (no, not even 20 years later as you can read here). Again, this doesn’t make the movie good, but we could all do with more male nudity in movies, because then, maybe there would less male complexes. And it would balance all the female nudity. The movie also shows the intolerance towards homosexuality at the time and how hard life was for homosexuals, facing humiliation and prison.
There is enough of that here, too, and Verlaine’s misogyny is another unsettling aspect of that movie. I’m divided about that here, because while his wife (Romane Bohringer) doesn’t come across as completely passive, she still suffers a lot for nothing. And there comes the movie’s problem in again: we should completely despise Verlaine for his behavior, but we must also be forgiving because he’s one of our protagonists. These parts are the most difficult to watch, as he continuously mocks, beats and semi-rapes her for nothing but his pleasure and hang-ups. The poster gives the false impression that the movie deals with this three-person-relationship, which it doesn’t because no one really gets along with each other for an extended period of time.
It’s not an easy movie and probably not a good one, but at least it does some things right. And some wrong.