The Unbearable Lightness of Being (movie, 1988)

We watch a lot of foreign films, and always enjoyed movies from Orion Pictures, but somehow Amy and I have never seen The Unbearable Lightness of Being, director Philip Kaufman’s 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s 1984 novel.

We haven’t read the novel, either — but apparently Milan Kundera did not feel his book was well represented by this movie, which soured him on film adaptations henceforth.

Although it was an American production in English, The Unbearable Lightness of Being feels much like a foreign film. It is set in Czechoslovakia and Geneva, and filmed in France by genius cinematographer Sven Nykvist (Ingmar Bergman’s guy), and a European cast.

The main characters are one man and two women, with whom he’s involved. Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Tomas, a successful young doctor in Prague thoroughly enjoying a mutual attraction to much of Czechoslovakian womankind. The gorgeous Lena Olin plays Sabina, an open-minded artist who is his lover. Soon, he is also taken by a small town girl named Tereza (Juliette Binoche) who adds her unsophisticated passion to what had been his Prague bachelor pad.

There is, of course, internal tension here between carefree lightness and faithful commitment, and it resounds externally in the thunder of massive Soviet tanks rolling into town and crushing the brief Prague Spring. Geneva, Switzerland offers the characters a happy-go-lucky option — but it is not home, and Swiss insouciance makes them as anxious as the communists oppression in Prague.

Sven Nykvist’s lens makes for a very visually appealing 2 hours and 51 minutes, including nudity and a number of sex scenes ranging from the erotic to the unbearable. Lena Olin looks great with or without clothes, and Juliette Binoche is a beautifully expressive young naif whose face and gestures convey her character’s inner turbulence with the true artistry of a silent film star.

Where the film is lacking is in words. There’s not enough verbal expression of these conflicts. The dialog is somewhat terse and superficial. Daniel Day-Lewis spends nearly the entire movie with the same faint smirk on his face, which serves to tell us both that he is very sexually interested in assorted women, and that he deeply resents his communist intimidators.

Overall though, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is worth watching despite its shortcomings. As Amy said, it’s the kind of movie where you find yourself thinking about the characters the next day. I think it also resonates a bit with current world frictions between the forces of despotism and liberty.

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