The dark half

Filmmaker Agnieszka Holland discusses the challenges of directing Total Eclipse

The voice that comes across the phone line from New York City is fearlessly confident and authoritative--except when it becomes agitated or passionate about a certain point. At that moment, Agnieszka Holland's language begins to speed up and she's wont to stutter or repeat herself. Either way, her elegant Eastern European accent is a bit fast for these Texas ears, but the 47-year-old writer-director is perfectly happy to repeat her last quote for a reporter she's never met.

Upon the release of Total Eclipse, her tenth international feature film, Holland can claim membership in an extremely exclusive club in world cinema--women filmmakers whose name alone will ensure the development of a project. Her sorority sisters include veterans such as Lina Wertmuller as well as relative newcomers like Jane Campion, Allison Anders, and Jocelyn Moorhouse.

Agnieszka Holland falls somewhere in the middle of all of them--a woman born and educated in post-World War II Poland who constantly fights within herself the battle between the personal and the political.

"I'm not sure why there are so few women directors," Holland said in an interview with the Observer. "I think it has something to do with the workload. People don't realize it, but directing a film is a very physical job. Anyone who undertakes that has to have certain military skills--talents not normally encouraged in women. And then there are so many men out there who hate to be given orders by a woman.

"As far as my career goes, I never felt like I've suffered for being a woman. I've suffered far more for being too intelligent, too thoughtful about my work." She laughs a deep-throated chuckle that could have come from Dietrich. "It's amazing the battles you have to fight to keep the commercial forces at bay."

Holland's three most famous films stateside are a fast-paced character study of a young German Jew who enlists in the Nazi Youth Party in Europa, Europa (1990); a vaguely supernatural art-house yarn about a kidnaped child who returns to a respectable French family as an adolescent male prostitute (Olivier, Olivier, 1992); and a 1993 version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's novel The Secret Garden starring Maggie Smith, which trumped three other film versions, including a treacly 1949 weeper starring Margaret O'Brien.

"It's true that my films used to be more political than they are now," Holland says. "I grew up in the middle of a very chaotic time, you understand. But as I become older, I am more interested in the personal choices made by people. My career emphasizes the experiences of the young. When I look back across the subjects I've treated, I see a bias toward young actors. That's a time in life when you believe anything is possible."

Her latest project, Total Eclipse, continues her obsession with the "anything is possible" aspect of youth. It focuses with furious detail on the tumultuous relationship between a pair of celebrated 19th century French poets--Paul Verlaine (British actor David Thewlis from Mike Leigh's Naked) and Arthur Rimbaud (American actor Leonardo DiCaprio, Oscar-nominated for his uncanny supporting turn in Lasse Halstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape?)--whose tortured love affair effectively destroyed both talents even as it changed the course of contemporary verse. Verlaine was 10 years older, a marginally acclaimed poet in his mid-20s who invited the impish, scatalogical, 16-year-old Rimbaud to live with him and his young, pregnant wife (French actress Rohmane Bohringer from Cyril Collard's Savage Nights).

Influential though his hallucinatory verse may be (almost all of it was written during a three-year period in his late teens) on scribes from Robert Lowell to rock 'n' roll poets Jim Morrison and Patti Smith, Rimbaud is not widely taught to students in America. As a young woman, Agnieszka Holland studied him in school, which was part of the reason she became attracted to the 1968 stage play about the poets by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, Carrington).

"Rimbaud is part of my spiritual biography," Holland says about her interest in the project. "I have always been very fascinated by the aura which surrounds him--that of the rebel attitude. When I read the play that Christopher wrote, I became convinced that his [Hampton's] point of view lined up with mine."

Of the two characters, it was initially Rimbaud that Holland found herself drawn to most powerfully. But now she admits that "I feel closer to Verlaine. He is the weaker, the more dependent of the two. That's true of me. I'm not nearly so honest or courageous a person as Rimbaud was."

Whether Rimbaud was "courageous" or not should be determined by American audiences who see Total Eclipse, an intermittently brilliant but frustratingly incomplete study of a doomed relationship that produced some of the most influential poetry of the past 150 years. By all accounts, Rimbaud was a foul-mouthed, unclean, disrespectful upstart when he moved in with Verlaine, his wife Mathilde, and Mathilde's family in the early 1870s. His prematurely visionary work, based on equal parts unprecedented insight and adolescent cojones, enchanted the impressionable Verlaine.

Rimbaud had developed a rather simple formula for poetic greatness. He said that in order for a writer to reach "the eternal," he (or she) must abandon "the personal" and embark on a "rational disordering of the senses." Both Rimbaud and Verlaine consumed great quantities of absinthe (the oil-of-wormwood-based liquor which has today made an illicit return to popularity in Eastern Europe) as well as hashish and opium. They were trying, in vain, to reach a transcendent physical and emotional experience and return to tell the tale.

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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