The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Obviously I’ve heard of the novel by Milan Kundera but not being the type to read serious literature, I’ve never read it. Nevertheless this is a very highly regarded adaptation and I’ve loved both of the films directed by Philip Kaufman that I’ve watched so far so I added it to our watch list. It’s worth noting that while Kundera himself served as a consultant for this project, he did not consider it to be a faithful adaptation of his novel so it’s probably best to see it as its own thing.

Tomas is a womanizing surgeon in Prague who declares that he never spends the night with any woman he sleeps with. One of his regular lovers is Sabina, an artist who shares his attitudes. While visiting a spa town to perform an operation, he meets Tereza, a waitress who seems bored of life in her small town. She follows him to Prague and much to the surprise of everyone including perhaps himself, he allows her to stay with him and they become a couple, even adopting a dog together. After Sabina helps Tereza to become a published photographer, Tereza realizes that Sabina is also one of Tomas’ lovers which makes her uncomfortable but she soon develops some affection of her own for her. However as Tomas continues to have sex with other women, she finds it impossible to accept his insouciant attitude to love and sex and decides to leave him. Just then however the Soviet Union invades, putting an end to the Prague Spring and the brief period of freedom of speech it brought it.

Obviously there’s more to the story than that as this is a film that has a running time of nearly three hours but you get the idea that this is portrait of the unusual relationships between these three main characters. It is thoroughly engaging throughout and the performances here are uniformly fantastic. It was rather shocking to see how young Daniel Day-Lewis looks, unrecognizably so in fact, and I loved watching Juliette Binoche playing the young innocent girl. One interesting technique used here is to film the scenes of the characters participating in the street protests and the subsequent crackdown in black and white or desaturated tones in order to match historical footage and intersperse the scenes. This serves to evoke the sense of what the Soviet invasion felt like and how it utterly crushed the hopes of the Prague Spring. Despite this being an American production, most of the performers are European and while they speak English, they deliberately use a fake Eastern European to create a sense of authenticity. I have no idea how accurate all this but it does work wonderfully for me.

It is impossible to examine this film, or the novel I suppose, without pondering what the lightness of its title means. As I understand the novel originally meant it to refer to Friedrich Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence but here it seems to have been simplified to a sort of carefree, insouciant attitude to life and especially sex and love. Tereza is obviously meant to be the ‘heavy’ character who can’t help but form strong ties, including to the dog Karenin. Sabina then is the ‘light’ character who rejects all permanent attachments. Tomas wavers between the two poles and I think it’s especially interesting how that applies even to his politics. He writes an article that mocks the Communists in a fit of spontaneity but the consequences come to weight heavily in his life. I’m not sure how deep this philosophizing is but I’d agree that it makes for good drama.

True to the spirit of the novel or not, this is an outstanding work due to terrific execution. It has heft due both to its examination of human relationships and its historical context , it engrosses the audience and arouses emotions on multiple levels, and it features stellar performances. Highly recommended but it is rather odd how the same director could have made three great films that are all so different.

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