Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being arrived in 1984 when the author, then and now based in France, was approaching his 10-year anniversary in exile from his homeland Czechoslovakia. In Eastern Europe, his books–often baldly critical of the Communist regime that had taken over his country in 1968–had routinely been banned from publication, and Kundera was stripped of his Czech citizenship in 1979 (he has since insisted on being considered a novelist of French origin). The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the last of his works to have an overtly political bent, was a fin de siècle which followed in a non-linear fashion the lives of five European citizens: Tomas, a 50-ish brain surgeon and womanizer; Sabina, the strong-willed artist with whom he has a iron-clad erotic connection; Tereza, the meek yet floridly emotional photographer who captures his heart (even perhaps against his will); Franz, the Swiss professor who naively falls for Sabina upon her escape to Geneva following the Prague Spring of 1968; and Simon, Tomas’ estranged son from a previous marriage.
When producer Saul Zaentz–who had won two Oscars producing films by Czech émigré Milos Forman–settled upon Kundera’s novel as his follow-up to the immensely successful Amadeus, he opted not with Forman’s services at the helm, but instead with those of the esteemed Philip Kaufman, who was still reeling from the unfortunate box-office drubbing that greeted his superb adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. One might wonder why Zaentz settled on Kaufman rather than Forman, who certainly was able to lend more Eastern European authenticity to this adaptation. However, given that Kaufman had already successfully transferred Wolfe’s “unfilmable” book to screen and that Kundera’s work was similarly afflicted with such a label, Zaentz’s decision made sense. Furthermore, the hiring of master screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière as Kaufman’s co-scribe was another encouraging stroke. Carrière (who would later be chosen as an Honorary Oscar winner in 2014) had already built an unparalleled career working with some of the world’s finest directors--Luis Bunuel, chief among them--on pieces focusing in on the delicate, often dark romantic dance between men and women. He was perfect for this assignment. The screenwriters first jettisoned the novel’s non-linear structure in order to center in on the real story at its core: the love triangle between Tomas, Sabina and Tereza. They made Tomas a much younger character and, in doing so, eliminated the need for Simon, Tomas’ son. And, most wisely, they reduced the amount of political commentary, except as it related to the physical and emotional actions of the three lovers.
As a result, the 1989 film version of The Unbearable Lightness of Being was not entirely satisfactory to the author, who gave a general stamp of approval to Kaufman’s final work but later admitted it was nowhere near to the spirit of his novel (in fact, he’s stated he will never again give permission for one of his books to be screen adapted). Even so, the movie was a resounding art house success and still remains one of the most affecting screen ruminations on the philosophical underpinnings of love and sexual pleasure ever produced. Deeply moving on many fronts, it’s a film like no other and though it’s lost some of its luster over the years (I do wish, now, that it had been directed by a Czech or at least a European director, and done in the Czech language), I do still respond heartily to the beauty of its look and constuction, its ideas, and its actors.
With an elegant title card, Kaufman’s film begins (presumably) outside of either Tomas’ or Sabina’s apartment, where we can hear sexually-charged feminine laughter quietly ringing through the closed door. We then begin to hear Leos Janacek’s delicate music (Kundera’s father was one of Janacek’s students) and we then first see Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) exiting a surgical situation with great flourishes. Very quickly, he gets some intimate attention from a nurse with whom he agreeably dallies, to the pleasure of a voyeuristic pair of doctors and one quickly revived patient (in a wild gag that feels like something out of Kaufman’s The Right Stuff). Day-Lewis invests his Tomas with a brash, predatory confidence–he looks like the ultimate 1960s player, with his wolfish eyes hiding behind ultra-cool black sunglasses. We can see that this confidence is shaken, though, in very different ways by the two women destined to be in his life. His afternoons with Sabina (Lena Olin in a brilliant showing) are bold dips into pure erotic play with no consequences, yet they have exposed Tomas in a very sly manner, so much so that Sabina is the one person who understands him better than he does himself.
SABINA (while wearing her great-great grandfather’s bowler hat): You are the complete opposite of kitsch. In the kingdom of kitsch, you would be a monster. Are you only searching for pleasure, or is every woman a new land whose secrets you’re waiting to discover?
It’s these sort of remarks that make Tomas just a tiny bit less sure of himself when he’s ensconced in Sabina’s mirror-laden boudoir.
His world, though, is truly jolted by the arrival of Tereza. Fresh faced and wide-eyed, she is this Superman’s Kryptonite. As played by the magnificent Juliette Binoche, Tereza would certainly capture any man’s heart; she’s dressed down, awkward, well-read and oh so sweet. Their first meeting, in a rural bar where she is a waitress and where Tomas, instantly captivated after seeing her glide under the water in a spa pool, has followed her. Tereza is girlish, but she’s not so innocent; she’s immediately up for sex with Tomas (“What a coincidence…your room number is 6 and my shift ends at six,” she says at first glance). But Tomas senses a danger to his “lightness of being”–the last thing he wants is to fall in love and he sees he could easily do so with this skipping, joyful, doe-eyed woman. And so he retreats back to Prague and to the less demanding Sabina. However, it isn’t long before Tereza makes her way to his flat and, in a fiercely humorous and unforgettably sexy scene, she undergoes an undisguised doctorial physical examination before boldly attacking Tomas with a barrage of kisses, causing them to both tumble about the room and onto the bed, where their first sexual encounter commences with Tereza’s joyous screams. There is simply no love scene in the history of cinema that has this quality of utter abandon and enervated passion. It’s an extraordinary moment.
Tomas wakes up the next morning with his hand clasped tightly in Tereza’s. This is, of course, new for him, since he routinely leaves a bed early or sends his conquest packing before time comes to actually sleep. In a bit of foreshadowing, Tomas pries her hand away and replaces his own with a copy of Sophocles’ Oedipus, kissing each of her fingers tenderly before leaving. Still, this is not a one-night stand. Tereza, with no intention of leaving her lover, takes up residence in his place. This starts to get Tomas rather nervous, as we see in another brilliant bit of dialogue between he and Sabina, who toys with him by hiding his sock and offering him one of her stockings as replacement.
TOMAS: You think I’m doing something silly. (Sabina feigns confusion) If I had two lives, in one life I could invite her to stay at my place. In the second life, I would kick her out. Then I could compare and see which had been the best thing to do. But we only live once. Life is so light, like an outline we can’t ever fill in or correct or make any better. It’s frightening.
It’s inevitable that Tereza and Sabina meet and, hoping that Sabina can give this callow woman some tips on how to break through as a photographer (and possibly get her off Tomas' back), Tomas makes this happen. But Tereza can sense the sexual tension in the air, and later, in another of the film’s great scenes, she awakes furiously from a nightmare in which Tomas is making love to other women. Literally beating herself up, she turns to Tomas, her face streaked with tears, and asks him why he would do this to her. “It was a dream,” he assures her, but in her heart she knows this is not so. Still, Tomas urges her back to slumber with a dainty poem. This piece of dialogue–the most memorable in the movie–turns out to be a bit written by Kundera directly for the film:
TOMAS: You can sleep. Sleep in my arms. Like a baby bird. Like a broom among brooms in a broom closet. Like a tiny parrot. Like a whistle. Like a little song. A song sung by a forest within a forest, a thousand years ago.
The moment gives you chills, it’s so perfect.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being feels less urgent when its dealing with the political aspects of its story. Its makers somehow seem disengaged, as if they view these bits as being largely expositional and beside the point, which they really are (at least in the context of the film). These moments, while necessary, often stop the movie rather cold and impede our interest in its true raison d’etre. Yes, part of the gist of Kundera’s story is that sexual freedom leads to political freedom, and vice versa. But the political scenes are just dully drawn, without much nuance (they feel like something out of a drab John le Carre adaptation). There are a couple of major scenes, though, in which the political observations work. One is the party scene where the house band, tearing through Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be The Day” for the sock-hopping crowd, is urged to play a Communist-approved dirge for the gang of party loyalists, who are toasting each other at a nearby table. The dance floor thins out as Tomas looks at the self-satisfied Communists and wonders if scoundrels know if they are scoundrels. The house band soon transforms the Communist ditty into a rock song, though, and Tereza joins one of Tomas’ male friends on dance floor. The sequence is expertly edited by the great Walter Murch, who manages to keep its many layers in supreme check. Later that night (in the final scene of the first act), Tomas ruminates on seeing Tereza dance with another man. Tereza begins to smile and dance so cutely around him. “You’re jealous, you’re jealous!” And Tomas protests. “I’m not.” He tries to get up and she pushes him back down–repeatedly. She grabs his feet and pulls him across the room (Day-Lewis does an athletic move here) and they are reduced to a mound together, her tickling him and insisting that they get married, and him resisting all the way. Another sublime scene of immense energy!
Enter here the film's other great character, that of Karenin, the dog that Tomas and Tereza adopt on their wedding day (tellingly, they name it after Anna Karenina, a devoted lover who meets an early death). A mutt if there ever was one, Karenin serves as a symbol of selfless love, of giving and caring. The dog thrives, but it’s strangely clear that, despite the certainty of all this shared love, Tomas is not going to give up his womanizing ways so easily. While having an argument over his infidelities, Tereza runs out of the flat and smack into a Russian tank roaring down the Prague streets (Kaufman actually shot the film in France, which production designer Pierre Guffroy cleverly redressed to look like 1968 Czechoslovakia). Here, through the magic of Murch’s wonderful editing and cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s equally masterful work, we get another of the film’s finest sequences: the Prague Spring, in which Tomas and Tereza’s actions on the streets are matched perfectly with well-chosen shots of actual documentary footage shot during the ’68 riots. In perfectly weathered color and B&W 16mm footage, we see Binoche–snapping pictures furiously–and Day-Lewis consorting with actual protesters, through the mixture of Kaufman’s footage and that of countless other filmmakers whose personal footage of the Communist atrocities had been far flung throughout the world (Murch says that he would find one piece of film in Rome and then find the reverse angle of that same shot in Oslo). One note: Czech filmmaker Jan Nemec is listed as a consultant for the film, and in fact much of his footage is used in this sequence, so much so that Nemec even gets a cameo as a man with a camera on a Prague balcony.
The second act of the film sees Tomas and Tereza following Sabina to Geneva, where she escapes to practice her art and ends up falling for a dowdy, naïve Swiss professor, Franz (Derek De Lint). This section of the film, too, feels lightly drawn, but it does allow Nykvist to change up his color palette a bit from the yellowed and burnished look of Prague to a more vibrant set of tones (Nykvist was nominated for an Oscar for his work, along with Kaufman and Carrière’s screenplay). It also give us another great scene in which Olin’s Sabina, dining at a kitschy restaurant with Franz, expounds on that feeling we all often have as we’re get older–that feeling that everything is getting worse:
SABINA: Everywhere, music is turning into noise. Look at these plastic flowers. They even put them in water. And look out there–those buildings…the uglification of the world. The only place we can find beauty is if its persecutors have overlooked it. It’s a planetary process…and I can’t stand it.
The Geneva sequence also offers us an opportunity to see Sabina and Tereza make a true connection with each other, with Tereza wanting to practice taking nude shots and Sabina agreeing to be her model. In an extraordinary scene, where we get to see these two expert actresses saying it all mostly with their expressive faces (Binoche’s often being obscured by a Praktica camera), we finally understand that Sabina strength is in her body, which she isn’t afraid to bare, and Tereza’s strength lies in her face (she’s terrified of being naked, as we shall see).
The third act of Kaufman and Carriere's brilliant adaptation–which I will keep largely under wraps–returns us to a dirtier, more depressing Prague (in which we are treated to cameos by a very young Stellan Skarsgard and a very old Erland Josephson, both rather underused). These scenes underline the dangers inherent in love and see Tomas making sacrifices one would have never have thought the wolf at the beginning of the film would have deigned make for anyone. I stay away here, also, from Tereza's most stunning words, as I save them for your discovery (I love that Tereza remains the most mysterious soul in this trifecta). By the film’s idyllic final thirty minutes, which is filled nonetheless with heartbreaking loss, we are convinced we have seen one of the most wonderful yet most nakedly honest screen romances cinema has to offer. It may be slightly flawed but Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being remains nonetheless captivating throughout. It's difficult to find a single movie quite like it.
NOTE: This piece first posted as a part of WONDERS IN THE DARK's overview of the best romantic movies ever made. Take a look at the complete collection here.