The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
“A Lovers Story.”
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Director: Philip Kaufman
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin
Synopsis: In 1968, a Czech doctor with an active sex life meets a woman who wants monogamy, and then the Soviet invasion further disrupts their lives.
In the Spring of 1968, Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis – Nanou, Stars and Bars), a brain surgeon based in Prague, leads the life of lightness that contributes to the title of Philip Kaufmann’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a problematic adaptation of Milan Kundera’s best-selling novel. Although living in a Communist country, Tomas leads a carefree life, and possesses the looks and charm necessary to persuade all of the women he happily chases to comply with his trademark instruction to “take off your clothes.” He has a kindred spirit in his regular lover, the Bohemian artist Sabina (Lena Olin), to whom he confesses that he never spends the night at a woman’s place or allows them to stay at his. But when Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a young waitress he briefly met at a country spa, follows him to Prague, he finds himself breaking his own rules and allowing her to live with him.
The opposing perspectives of Tomas and Tereza gives rise to tensions in their deepening relationship. ‘I know I’m supposed to help you’ says Tereza, ‘but I can’t. Instead of being your support I’m your weight. Life is very heavy to me, but it is so light to you.’ She struggles – and fails – to comprehend his outlook on life, and is hurt by his unrepentant womanising, but Tomas’s love for her is confirmed by events following the Russian invasion of their homeland.
It almost feels as though everyone involved in making The Unbearable Lightness of Being was so caught up in the intense interest surrounding Kandera’s novel that they threw themselves into it without really considering the difficulties involved. The book is a philosophical one, and apparently troublesome to translate to the screen, and although he worked on the movie as an uncredited consultant, the author has since voiced his displeasure with the final product. But while The Unbearable Lightness of Being is undoubtedly a deeply flawed and hopelessly rambling piece of work, it’s not without some merit. The chameleon-like Day-Lewis proves surprisingly effective as a light-hearted womaniser, although he too has expressed regret over accepting the role at that stage in his career. He’s overshadowed, however, by Binoche and Olin, both of whom give highly sympathetic performances in hugely different roles as the two key women in Tomaz’s life. While Tereza remains slavishly faithful to him (until she misguidedly tries to mimic his attitude towards sex with others), Sabina is a self-confessed ‘leaver’ who would rather go through the inconvenience of moving home overnight than live with a lover who has left his wife in the expectation of moving in with her.
At nearly three hours, the film is too long, and struggles to maintain audience interest despite some wonderful performances. Many scenes could have been shortened, and some excised completely, without any real damage to narrative flow. A sequence like the faux-newsreel shots of Russian tanks invading Prague is impressive, but its initial impact is weakened considerably by its length. And despite more than two hours in which to set up its concluding scenes, the film loses its way in the last half-hour. Tereza’s sexual encounter with an engineer she subsequently fears might be a government spy looks as if it is shaping up to be the trigger for the film’s ending, but is dropped completely when she and Tomaz move to the country where they enjoy an idyllic life together in a kind of narrative respite which is vaguely reminiscent of the lovers’ fleeting refuge in the icy wastelands of Russia in Dr Zhivago . So although The Unbearable Lightness of Being ends strongly on a poignant note, it doesn’t really satisfy because it feels as if it belongs to a different film entirely.
(Reviewed 16th January 2016)