The film chronicles the relationship between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine, two 19th century French poets. Rimbaud is in himself a fascinating figure - hailed as a genius at age 16, he stopped writing poetry entirely after 21, took off for Africa and died at 37. I have a particular fascination with depictions of genius, especially in film - how people imagine what it's like to be a genius, how a genius' mind works, and how they attempt to portray that to a mass audience, is really interesting to me. And this film, I think, does one of the best jobs of it I've ever seen*.
2 years before Titanic, back when he actually took risks as an actor, Leonardo DiCaprio is perfect as Arthur Rimbaud. He's impetuous and moody, brooding one minute and laughing with delight the next. There's a kind of girlishness to both his face and figure - not that he's effeminate, rather that he's masculine in a vulnerable sort of way. He's an absolute tyrant, sweet as sugar one minute and horrifically cold the next. Repeatedly, you find yourself on the verge of thinking that he might be the cruelest person in existence, and then you remember - he's only 16. He behaves just like the average teenager. Unfortunately, he's also gifted with this incredible wisdom beyond his years. It's really well done.
Meanwhile, David Thewlis does an incredible turn as Paul Verlaine. Affected, pompous, but also somewhat callow and sniveling, he's most sympathetic in his moments of weakness, and most monstrous when he's trying to compensate for them. His patent insufficiency drives him to viciousness and brutality - some of the scenes between him and his wife are really awful and upsetting - but there's a tragedy to him, namely, he is granted the brilliance to recognize greatness in others (a meaningful talent in its own right), but never to achieve it himself.
The movie doesn't have too terribly much in the way of plot, and it definitely sags towards the end. But at its best, it's a seething, atmospheric exploration of the interactions between these various people, subtle and elegant. Definitely a movie worth watching.
*The usual approach is that intelligence is largely an effortless kind of thing - think A Beautiful Mind, where the numbers pop out of the wall, or Good Will Hunting where he just starts happily scribbling on the board. Alternatively, there's the freakish approach, aka Rain Man. Neither of these are particularly satisfying to me. The question is, how do you show what it's like to understand things that no one else can in such a way that everyone can understand?