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In 1871, Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), an established poet, invites boy genius Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) to live with Paul and his young pregnant wife, Mathiltde, in her father's home in Paris. Rimbaud's uncouth behavior disrupts the household as well as the insular society of French poets, but Verlaine finds the youth invigorating. Stewed in absinthe and resentment, Verlaine abuses Mathiltde; he and Rimbaud become lovers and abandon her. There are reconciliations and partings with Mathiltde and partings and reconciliations with Rimbaud, until an 1873 incident with a pistol sends one of them to prison. Codas dramatize the poets' final meeting and last illnesses. Written by
David Thewlis shaved part of his head especially for the film so as to look like the real Verlaine. See more »
In the Café Andre where the adult Isabelle Rimbaud meets with Paul Verlaine, the typeface on the window is clearly in Helvetica, a typeface that was not created until 1954. See more »
Sometimes he speaks in a kind of tender dialect of the death which causes repentence, of the unhappy men who certainly exist, of painful tasks and heartrending departures. In the hovels where we got drunk he wept looking at those who surrounded us, the cattle of poverty. He lifted up drunks in the black streets. He had the pity a bad mother has for small children. He moved with the grace of a little girl at catechism. He pretended to know about everything, business, art, medicine. ...
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This is a worthy and successful attempt to make a film about the famous literary and personal relationship between two great poets, Paul Verlaine and the young Arthur Rimbaud. How the French must have resented its being made in English! (But why did the French themselves never film this story, which is so fundamental to the mythology of their literature?) There is no use viewers and reviewers complaining that the characters are disgusting: everybody knows they were, and they would have been the first to admit it. This film has not been made for the wrong reasons, with fictional characters, but is a true story. It is rather disturbing to realize that absinthe has been legalised again and people are drinking it once more, when we see how it drove these two poets insane, which is what is really does, you know! The banning of absinthe should never have been lifted. It may be a pretty green colour, but it is not romantic or at all glamorous. One strange omission from this film is any of the poetry of either poet! Very few decent translations of Verlaine into English exist, because he used rhyme so much. But he was a great and soaring poet, and of course Rimbaud shattered all the moulds and basically founded modern poetry, and had the status of a god to the Surrealists. So it would have been good to hear some of their work, especially as it is all out of copyright and no one could have objected. The lack of the poetry stops people who do not already know it from appreciating the point of all this carrying-on. Verlaine and Rimbaud were appalling, violent, disorderly, and to call them extreme Bohemians doesn't go far enough: they were both quite mad as well. But then, many poets are, and often the finest poetry comes from the ones who are the craziest (David Gascoyne, whom I knew well, is an example, and Ezra Pound whom I knew less well was not what you could call well-balanced). It is often said that there is a fine line between genius and madness, but with poets, the situation is even more dire: to be a divinely inspired poet it seems that it is almost a requirement that you first lose your mind. (Exceptions are those with no fire in their temperament at all: Eliot, Perse, Valery, or those who have become spiritual beings while still on earth, such as Rilke.) Well, the performances and direction are excellent here. Agnieszka Holland is an inspired director, a protégé of Wajda, and perhaps her greatest achievement was 'Washington Square' (1997). She is interested in art, not commerce, and congratulations to her for that! The young Leonardo Di Caprio, aged 20, was a scintillating, wild, and wholly convincing Rimbaud. You could believe every scene. David Thewlis was equally convincing as Verlaine, despite being rather too thin for the part (Verlaine was stockier and plumper, and Thewlis looks like he hasn't had a decent meal for ten years). Romane Bohringer was an excellent choice for Verlaine's wife, and plays it just right. The next year she would make her staggering pair of films, 'L'Appartement' and 'Portraits Chinois', in both of which she sets the cinema on fire. So the talent is there, and the film is delivered. If we find these people disturbing, it is because they were. But without this bizarre tale, twentieth century poetry would not have come into existence, because it was created by Arthur Rimbaud, and without Verlaine taking him under his wing it would never have happened. Christopher Hampton's screenplay is intelligent and thoughtful and well-crafted throughout. But then, that is what he does. It is good to have this on the screen, but for those who do not already know the story, it must be a real shocker. It is also not a film for 'homophobes', and if you don't want to see Leonard Di Caprio kissing a man on the mouth, look away now.
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