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  • Post last modified:June 18, 2020

Unbearable Lightness of Being: One Life to Live


I may not love it but I guess I take this adaptation seriously enough not to deliver a review as scathing as the one John Crace wrote of Milan Kundera’s novel in The Guardian in December 2009. He shred Kundera’s work to pieces as something only a pretentious, middle-aged Eastern European man would write. I read the review and laughed out loud… but there is more to the story than a bored British literary critic would admit.

A brain surgeon with an eye for women
The year is 1968 and we are in Prague. Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a brain surgeon with an eye for beautiful women. His favorite lover is Sabina (Lena Olin), an artist who in Crace’s words likes “to fuck in a bowler hat”. One day Tomas goes to a spa town to operate on a man, where he meets a waitress, Tereza (Juliette Binoche), who becomes yet another lover to him. She wants to leave the small town and moves to Prague where she has to accept the fact that Tomas is also sleeping with Sabina.

It is an uneasy menage a trois… but then it happens, the disastrous event that changes Czechoslovakia; in August that year, Soviet tanks roll into the streets of Prague. Tereza naively takes pictures of the occupation force and soon faces repercussions. Along with Tomas and Sabina, she gets out of Czechoslovakia, but leaving their old life behind is not easy…

A price to pay
Kundera was deeply unhappy with this adaptation of his novel. I can imagine that his philosophical thoughts were dealt with to a more satisfactory degree in the book, but the body of it is certainly present here. The “lightness of being” means that we have only one life to live and what takes place only once is of no significance. Hence the lightness of leading a promiscuous life for instance; if one life is all you get, what does it matter how many women you sleep with? But the price we pay is inherent in this lightness; the idea that nothing matters is a burden to bear. Why live at all, one might ask? This philosophical thought runs through the entire film. Ironically, what does take place in the story often has a profound effect on the characters, especially Tereza who is unable to see things Tomas’s way. She can’t stand how he reeks of other women, or the freedom of exiled life in Geneva, which she can’t handle. She is contrasted not only by Tomas and his slutty behavior, but also Sabina who has the same attitude to life.

The movie runs for three hours and one’s interest in these people and their travails certainly comes and goes… but at its best it is an intelligent, sensual, delicate and well-acted portrayal of individuals trying to come to grips with not only their personalities but also the identity of their country. The three leads were all relative newcomers (especially Olin who made a sexy U.S. debut), but they all deliver strong performances, especially Binoche as the odd woman out in the menage a trois.

Olin is not the only Swede involved in the production; she’s joined by Erland Josephson, Stellan Skarsgård and cinematographer Sven Nykvist (who contributes to an intense vision of the Prague invasion where actual news footage mix in a convincing way with newly-shot images of Binoche and Day-Lewis). Along with the source material (partly adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière), they contribute to an American film that’s about as European as they come.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being 1988-U.S. 171 min. Color. Produced by Saul Zaentz. Directed by Philip Kaufman. Screenplay: Philip Kaufman, Jean-Claude Carrière. Novel: Milan Kundera. Cinematography: Sven Nykvist. Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Tomas), Juliette Binoche (Tereza), Lena Olin (Sabina), Derek de Lint, Erland Josephson, Pavel Landovsky… Stellan Skarsgård.

BAFTA: Best Adapted Screenplay.

Last word: “I spent four and a half [years] doing ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. I was just going round trying to cast it, trying to work with Jean-Claude Carriere, trying to work with Kundera, trying to do justice to this great book by Kundera, but it’s a book in a way that is philosophical and it has its own music and each little chapter dealing with the eternal return. Jean-Claude was very instrumental in this, we extended the story and tried to breathe dramatic life into the material but at the same time be true to Kundera’s book. Whatever that means. True to him in our way and I hope that we were able to do that. It was complicated and it took a long time, we spent a long, long time trying to get the right cast.” (Kaufman, There’s No Place Like Home)



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