“The only unbearable thing is that nothing is unbearable.”
After a long wait thanks to the studio’s insistence on holding onto the theatrical experience, The Father is finally being released in cinemas. Deservedly gathering Oscar buzz as well as plenty of awards and nominations from various groups along the way, the Anthony Hopkins-starring drama won’t be short on arthouse audience interest. The story of a man (Hopkins) battling dementia is a hard watch but is made endlessly compelling thanks to its performances, editing and especially, its Christopher Hampton-penned script.
Anytime Hampton’s name appears on a project, cinephiles instantly expect to be in for a treat, which they are. The Oscar-winning screenwriter/playwright has been entrancing audiences with his weaving of words and emotions in everything from Dangerous Liaisons to Atonement. But for whatever reason, one of his most daring and telling works, 1995’s Total Eclipse, continues to go unheralded.
Set in 19th century France, Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) is a successful poet living with his young wife (Dominique Blanc) when he agrees to take in the young promising poet Arthur Rimbaud (Leonardo Dicaprio). Although Paul doesn’t know what to make of the young man at first, his curiosity will soon lead the two of them into a passionate romance with life changing consequences.
Decades before the likes of Call Me By Your Name, Total Eclipse took a chance at telling a love story between two men, both from different ends of the spectrum, destined to be interwinted in each other’s souls. Arthur and Peter both remain mysteries to the world and to an extent, themselves, regardless of how much times passes. The two are after different things; Peter is after the freedom and validity Arthur gives that part of himself he never understood before. Meanwhile Arthur sees Peter as not just a financial means to an end, but also as an entry into a world he’s longed to be a part of. What the pair end up getting is more than they bargained for, needless to say. Both Arthur and Peter find themselves living the lives of vagabonds as they wrestle with the fiery feelings which threaten to tear them apart time and time again and yet somehow ensures they never leave each other for as long as either can help it. In the process, both men become forever changed by their romance. While Peter is stripped away of everything that earned him a place in the society he once fit so easily into, Arthur becomes educated in a way that no amount of natural talent for poetry (or anything else, for that matter) could ever come close to.
There’s no mistaking Christopher Hampton dialogue. The writer can famously go from playful and catty (as seen in Dangerous), to pensive and poetic, the way he did in Cheri. Regardless of what kind of scene he’s writing, his characters are never anything less than witty and captivating thanks to the words he gives them. When it comes to Total Eclipse, it’s Arthur who has been gifted all the stellar lines, each of which perfectly signify a young man who believes himself to be wise beyond his years. “Love has to be reinvented,” he muses to Paul at one point before proclaiming in a later scene: “Let the 98 wounds of our savior burst and bleed.” Hampton strikes a good balance between the high energy of the couple’s relationship and the harsh reality that they are doomed to eventually be torn apart by. “He had the pity a bad mother has for small children, Peter recalls when describing Arthur. “He moved with the grace of a little girl at catechism,” he continued. “He pretended to know about everything, business, art, medicine. I followed him, I had to!” The film’s dialogue keeps its momentum going throughout, managing to keep a hold on the soulfulness of the piece until the end. “I’ve found it,” Arthur tells Paul. “What,” Paul asks. “Eternity. It’s the sun mingled with the sea.”
Thewlis carries more of the weight for Total Eclipse, despite having the seemingly more straightforward role. But the actor leans into Peter’s passion, his desire and his endless reconciliation between the two worlds he finds himself stuck in. It’s easily one of his best performances. Dicaprio may have the flashier role, but that doesn’t exactly serve him as well as it should. The young actor feels a little too out of place given the style of language and the overall nature of the world created here. Still, there are enough scattered scenes thorough which manage to convey the intensity and commitment of the actor that was to come.
Not a lot of people saw Total Eclipse back during its 1995 release for reasons which could be chalked up to its distribution by a boutique indie studio and its very explicit homorerotic nature. In fact, the only reason the film got any kind of mainstream attention at all was due to the producers re-releasing it the following year on the heels of the success which followed Dicaprio with Romeo + Juliet. Admittedly, Total Eclipse isn’t the strongest of films. Director Agnieszka Holland doesn’t have the strongest hold on the material; a fact which is evident by how scattered many of the movie’s scenes come across. But it’s that ability to craft a rare kind of beauty onto the page the way Hampton does so well which ultimately makes Total Eclipse come to life.
Total Eclipse is available on DVD from Warner Archive.