The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out 10

4-Word Review: He fails at monogamy.

Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful surgeon living in Prague during the 1960’s who has a way with the ladies. He enjoys his robust sex life, but then falls for the awkward and plain Tereza (Juliette Binoche) and the two get married even as Tomas continues to see other women on the side. Tereza becomes upset by this and threatens to leave him only for the two to get swept up into the events of the Prague Spring where Soviet tanks invade their country. They escape to Switzerland but Tereza is unhappy there as well and moves back to Czechoslovakia with Tomas later following. Although their living conditions under communist rule are harsh they still find that their mutual love keeps them happy anyways.

Although masterfully directed by Philip Kaufman I still found the characters to be poorly etched. Tomas’ ability to get beautiful women to literally throw themselves at him never gets properly explained. Yes he is good-looking, but there are a lot of handsome guys who aren’t able to get women to shed their clothes for them at seemingly the snap-of-the-finger. Some clear social skill or persuasive ability had to be shown and clarified to make the women’s behavior more understandable, but this never effectively gets addressed. The scene where Tereza gets ‘overpowered’ by Tomas’ aura when all he is doing is sitting at a table in a café reading a book, but it’s enough to get her to run up to him and tell him she’s available is a big stretch and makes this supposedly profound movie look like it was built on a very superficial foundation.

There’s also the question as to why Tomas would want to marry Tereza to begin with. This is a guy who can literally get any beautiful woman he wants so why settle for the dowdy/shy Tereza? What is it about her, or about his inner mind that would want to make him commit to her and not the others?

His relationship with Sabina (Lena Olin), who is his independent- minded off-again-on-again lover is far more believable and kind of made me wonder why Tereza even needed to be in the mix at all. As much as I liked Sabina I did find the storyline dealing with her budding relationship with Franz (Derek de Lint) to be rather unengaging. However the friendship that blossoms between her and Tereza as well as the underlying lesbian subtext is interesting and yet the film introduces this in a very long, drawn-out segment inside Sabina’s apartment only to then drop it without ever exploring it to its satisfying and full conclusion.

On the technical side it’s a splendid production. I particularly liked the imagery of the tanks rolling into the city and how Tomas and Tereza’s presence gets cropped into actual footage of the real-life event and how seamlessly it goes between black-and-white and color. Sven Nykvist’s cinematography is a marvel. Initially I felt his talents were wasted as the camera only captures the bleak colorless surroundings of old-town Prague, but then when the couple returns to the city after their brief foray in Switzerland the decay and grayness becomes even more pronounced and helps convey visually the depressing feeling of the communist oppression.

The film, which is based on the novel of the same name by Milan Kundera, has an interesting message, but it failed to give me as a viewer any type emotional impact. I was never able to understand what made these characters tick. This might’ve gotten better addressed in the novel, which I didn’t read, but gets lost in translation here and ends up hurting the provocative imagery that to some degree gets a bit over-the-top anyways. This could also help explain why despite being on the set as an ‘advisor’ Kundera expressed displeasure with the film version and refused to help promote it.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 5, 1988

Runtime: 2Hours 53Minutes

Rated R

Director: Philip Kaufman

Studio: Orion Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

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