The dark half

Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland discusses the challenges of directing Total Eclipse

But Total Eclipse contains too little poetry by Rimbaud and too many declarations of genius by the poet himself, Verlaine, his family, and his in-laws. We constantly hear about what a seer this young rebel was, but receive little evidence of it beyond the strange indulgence of the people in his life to Rimbaud's rebelliousness. After a while, those who've never read the poet want to know what all the fuss is about.

According to Agnieszka Holland, the decision not to highlight Rimbaud's poetry was a deliberate one. "We weren't trying to make a poetical biography with this film," she says. "In fact, Rimbaud's poetry is so complex, I'm not sure it could be summarized for a mass movie audience. We wanted to highlight the relationship between two men, Verlaine and Rimbaud, who were lovers. That was my chief interest in the story. In fact, Christopher [Hampton, the playwright] lifted about 40 or 50 percent of Leonardo's words straight from prose works by Rimbaud."

Fine Line, the New Line Cinema subsidiary that agreed to distribute Total Eclipse in America, has deliberately downplayed the film's homosexual angle. Press releases describe the relationship between Verlaine and Rimbaud as "a friendship," and most print ads nationwide feature a photo of DiCaprio staring into the face of Bohringer while Thewlis looks on petulantly. The ad campaign suggests a fairly standard heterosexual love triangle that the film doesn't portray. How does Holland feel about the marketing of her movie in America?

"I have no complaints about the way the Fine Line people have handled my movie," she says. "At the same time, that's not really my department. I make the best film I can, and hopefully they sell it in any way that's most effective. For my part, I certainly never tried to conceal the romance between Verlaine and Rimbaud."

Total Eclipse works a lot more effectively as a showcase for the formidable talents of DiCaprio and Thewlis (who replace the late River Phoenix and John Malkovich as the film's original protagonists) than an effective portrayal of two gigantic muses who canceled each other out. This is the type of movie in which temperamental artistic types get off on being deliberately cruel to each other, so its potential audience seems, at best, rather limited.

This is something Holland considers carefully whenever she undertakes a project. "Moviemaking is so ridiculously expensive these days," she says. "You have directors out there who are happy to spend $60 million on a small, personal film. I would never want to work with that much money. As it is, I scale the budgets of my pictures according to how broad I think the interest is. So The Secret Garden cost much more than Total Eclipse.

"These enormous budgets are what's killing the invention in contemporary cinema, you know what I mean? It changes the stakes in the film market worldwide. I don't want to work with that much money, because the more money you have the more people are dependent on the film's success. The way things are now, I can sleep at night knowing I haven't ruined somebody's life or career."

Total Eclipse. Fine Line. Leonardo DiCaprio, David Thewlis, Rohmane Bohringer. Written by Christopher Hampton, based on his play. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Now showing.

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