Total Eclipse is a 1995 film directed by Agnieszka Holland, based on a 1967 play by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay. Based on letters and poems, it presents a historically accurate account of the passionate and violent relationship between the two 19th century French poets Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) and Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio), at a time of soaring creativity for both of them.
It is rated R in the USA for strong sexuality and nudity, language, and some startling violence.
The older Paul Verlaine meets the dead Arthur Rimbaud's sister in a café in Paris. Rimbaud's sister and mother want Verlaine to hand over any copies he may still have of Rimbaud poems so that they can burn them; they fear the lewdness of his writings. Verlaine reflects on the wild relationship he had had with Rimbaud, beginning when the teen-aged Rimbaud had sent his poetry to Verlaine from his home in the provinces in 1871. Verlaine, instantly fascinated, impulsively invites him to his rich father-in-law's home in Paris, where he lives with his young, pregnant wife. The wild, eccentric Rimbaud displays no sense of manners or decency whatever, scandalising Verlaine's pretentious, bourgeois in-laws.
Verlaine is seduced by the 16-year-old Rimbaud's physical body as well as by the unique originality of his creative mind. The staid respectability of married, heterosexual life and easy, middle class surroundings had been stifling Verlaine's admittedly sybaritic literary talent. His taking up with Rimbaud is as much a rebellion and a liberation as it is a giving in to self-indulgence and masochism. Rimbaud acts as sadistically to Verlaine as does Verlaine to his young wife, whom he eventually deserts. A violent, itinerant relationship ensues between the two poets, the sad climax of which arrives in Brussels when an enraged and practically insane Verlaine shoots and wounds Rimbaud and is sentenced to prison for sodomy and attempted murder.
In prison, Verlaine experiences a conversion to Christianity much mocked by his erstwhile lover. Upon release he meets Rimbaud in Germany, vainly and mistakenly seeking to revive the relationship. The two men part, however, never to meet again. Bitterly renouncing literature in any form, Rimbaud travels the world alone, finally settling in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) to run a "trading post". There he has a mistress and possibly a young boy-lover. A tumor in his right knee forces him back to France where his leg is amputated. Nevertheless, the cancer spreads and he dies at the age of 37.
Rimbaud's sister asserts that her brother had accepted confession from a priest right before he died and shown Christian penitence, which is why only the censored versions of his poetry should survive. Verlaine pretends to agree but tears up her card after she leaves. Later, Verlaine, drinking absinthe to which he has become addicted, sees a vision of Rimbaud, returned from some transcendent realm to express the love and respect Verlaine has thus posthumously earned.
Critics felt that the film showed a limited sense of what life was like in late-nineteenth century Europe. It largely, but not totally, ignores the two poets' history before and after they met, which makes it harder for the uneducated viewer to understand why a film about their lives was made. It might be very difficult for someone who is not familiar with late nineteenth century French literature to understand or appreciate what is happening in the film.
Critics did generally feel that the acting, musical score and cinematography were all well done, although some felt that DiCaprio played the character too closely to his role in the film The Basketball Diaries.