Unbearable Lightness of Being, The (1988): Philip Kaufman’s Version of Kundera’s Novel, Starring Danie; Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin

Based on the acclaimed novel by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Philip Kaufman’s film version is a surprisingly deep and resonant, and in moments even lyrical, exploring love, sex, hedonism, politics, freedom and commitment.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)

he Unbearable Lightness of Being
Unbearable lightness of being poster.jpg

Theatrical release poster

The story begins in Prague shortly before the 1968 Soviet invasion. Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a brilliant surgeon, a playboy womanizer who believes in living “light” existence, free of emotional commitments

Indeed, when he falls in love with the shy and provincial Teresa (French actress Juliette Binoche) and marries her, it doesn’t deter him from having an affair with the wildly erotic Sabina (sexy Swedish actress Lena Olin), who is similarly free and easy-going. Challenged, Tomas defends his illicit affair by claiming that sex and love are two totally different elements.

When the Soviet tanks invade the country, Sabina flees to Geneva, but Tomas and Teresa stay behind. Teresa begins taking photos of the demonstrations and violent encounters. Eventually, the couple heads to Geneva, and Tomas resumes his affair with Sabina

Teresa decides to return to Prague, and Tomas follows her. Back home, they sustain the Soviet influence until the authorities discover that Tomas once wrote an anti-Communist article.

Typically, Tomas write the piece on a whim, but he refuses to renounce it and his professional career suffers. All along, he continues to see Sabina and Teresa continues to struggle with his liberal philosophy of sex versus love.

It’s a tribute to Kaufman’s vision that, despite an international cast, the film has a unified look and feel. Prior to that, Kaufman, one of the most gifted and idiosyncratic of American directors, made “The Right Stuff,” also a great picture that failed at the box-office.

In the U.S., “Unbearable Lightness” was perceived and reviewed as an art film, one that’s too intellectual for mass audiences, which became like a self-fulfilling prophecy, when the movie failed commercially.

Daniel Day-Lewis, who made a strong impression in 1986 with two vastly different roles, as a gay punk in “My Beautiful Launderette” and in the costume picture “Room With a View,” gives a credible performance, but the movie belongs to the two women, who are spectacular.

Cast against type, Juliette Binoche, an otherwise beautiful and alluring actress (“The English Patient” and countless French films), is utterly compelling as the more conventional femme.

Exuding abundant sex appeal, Lina Olin looks and behaves is seductively. The foreplay and steamy sex with Tomas are some of the most appealing and naturally erotic scenes ever seen in American films.

The whole production boasts a subtle, sophisticated European flavor, a result of director Kaufman’s affinity with such a material.

The movie is beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist (better known for his work for Bergman, including “Fanny and Alexander) in Geneva and Lyon, standing in for Prague.

Oscar Alert:

Oscar Nominations: 2

Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere and Philip Kaufman, based on the novel by Milan Kundera

Camera: Sven Nykvist

Oscar Context:

In 1988, the winners in those categories were Christopher Hampton for his adapted screenplay for Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons,” and Peter Biziou for his lensing of the political film “Mississippi Burning,” both of which were Best Picture nominees.

Philip Kaufman failed to get a Directing Oscar nomination in a year in which Charles Crichton received one, for the slapstick comedy “A Fish Called Wanda.”

Cast:

Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis)

Tereza (Juliette Binoche)

Sabina (Lena Olin)

Franz (Derek De Lint)

The Ambassador (Erland Josephson)

Pavel (Pavel Landovsky)

Chief Surgeon (Donald Moffat)

Interior Minister (Daniel Olbrychski

The Engineer (Stellan Skarsgaard)

Jiri (Tomek Bork)

 

Credits:

Produced by Saul Zaentz and Philip Kaufman

Screenplay: Jean-Claude Carriere and Philip Kaufman, based on the novel by Milan Kundera

Camera: Sven Nykvist

Editor: Walter Murch

Music: Mark Adler, Keith Richards, and Leos Janacek

Production design: Pierre Guffroy

Costumes: Anne Roth

Special Effects: Trielli Brothers

Running Time: 171 Minutes