‘Unbearable Lightness of Being’ Improves on Novel

Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis, along with the dog Karenin, star in the 1988 film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures

By Todd Hill

“Does he love me? Does he love anyone more than me? Does he love me more than I love him? Perhaps all the questions we ask of love, to measure, test, probe, and save it, have the additional effect of cutting it short.”

The 1984 Milan Kundera novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” excerpted above, speaks truth to love. It is in fact loaded down with accurate observations about a great many aspects of the human condition, but readers should not expect shaking of this tree to yield much fruit without some real effort on their part.

It’s not so much that Kundera’s writing is especially dense, or the novel’s plot overly heavy. Kundera’s prose here wanders about so circuitously, one of the things that’s so wonderful about it, that the plot sometimes feels like a helium balloon that’s escaped a child’s grasp. In short, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is the kind of novel that’s supposed to be unfilmable.

How then can we explain the success of Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film adaptation of Kundera’s novel? The big-screen version of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is hardly the only instance in which a filmmaker has taken on an unwieldy source work and turned it into something arguably better. It wasn’t even the only such instance of its time; Anthony Minghella worked similar magic with 1996’s “The English Patient,” based on Michael Ondaatje’s “unfilmable” novel.

Kundera, a Czech native who had frequent run-ins with what was then the ruling Soviet power, wrote the Prague-based “Unbearable Lightness of Being” after he began living in French exile. But the film was directed by an American, in addition to being shot in France given that what was then Czechoslovakia was still a Soviet satellite state. Again, these are, at least potentially, more reasons why this movie should not have worked, and yet it does, quite impressively.

Not to be confused with cultural appropriation, which can mean any number of things depending on who you’re talking to, where the conversation is taking place, or perhaps just the day of the week, there is a long tradition in filmmaking of directors from one part of the world effectively telling a story that should be utterly foreign to them. Take just for one instance Taiwan’s Ang Lee, who was able to discern the heart of an Annie Proulx short story about the American West for his 2005 adaptation of “Brokeback Mountain,” not to mention finding a way into 1970’s Connecticut suburbia for his “The Ice Storm” (1997). Sometimes being several steps removed from the material, at least culturally, can be an advantage.

Philip Kaufman accomplished something similar with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” but before I go any further, what’s with that loopy title? The narrative framework of Kundera’s novel is concerned with relationships, and the lightness in this instance refers to the lifestyle of enjoying physical connections without the burden of them becoming more meaningful attachments — hook-ups, if you will. That this lightness proves to be unbearable here suggests the staying power of such a lifestyle, at least in the context of Kundera’s story.

Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), a surgeon living in Prague, is maintaining a long-term, no-strings-attached relationship with Sabina, a local artist/free spirit (Lena Olin), when he travels to a rural spa town to perform an operation. There he encounters Tereza, a bored and lonely waitress (Juliette Binoche), and although nothing happens between them except for some vague chemistry, the mousy Tereza is bold enough to later track down Tomas in Prague. They eventually marry, a radical life change for a player like Tomas, although we quickly see that marriage and fidelity are two very different things to him.

That’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” in a nutshell, although there’s so much more to this nearly three-hour film. Midway in, the Soviets march into Czechoslovakia, bringing the “Prague Spring” of 1968 to an emphatic conclusion, as the permissive, bohemian world in which Tomas, Tereza and Sabina are thriving comes crashing down in an instant. Sabina flees to Switzerland, followed by her two friends. Geneva, however, while beautiful, clean, and most importantly, still a bastion of free will, is missing the vitality which these three people need to survive. Sabina, despite existing as a seemingly crucial character in this story, then disappears from the movie and, we learn much later, winds up in northern California, fittingly.

Tereza, dismayed by Tomas’ continued philandering, returns to Prague, leaving Tomas little choice but to follow. A scene in which he gives up his passport at the border is brief but wrenching; when two disembodied hands take the document and curtly wave Tomas on, it’s the visual equivalent of a prison door clanging shut. Prague, now under visible Soviet domination, has become a powerfully depressing city, and in one last attempt to find a place where they can breathe, Tomas and Tereza flee to a farm in the countryside, where they finally find not just domestic bliss, but real happiness. It’s not lightness, as previously defined, but it proves to be very bearable indeed.

Kaufman caught his three principal actors, Day-Lewis, Olin and Binoche, relatively early in their careers. Day-Lewis was still a year away from the first of his six Academy Award nominations for acting, while Olin and Binoche had mostly appeared on television up to that point or in small film roles, as “Lady with Dog” or “Girl at the Rally.”

While I’ve never been critical of a Day-Lewis performance and am not going to start now, neither can I say that this performance especially lingers in my mind for any reason. He fully inhabits his character, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that his turn is overshadowed here by his two female co-stars.

It’s doubtlessly reductive to characterize Olin’s Sabina as highly sexual and leave it at that, but the fact is her sexuality in this picture is fairly impossible to ignore. The film features an abundance of carnal activity, hardly surprising given its theme, and Kaufman chose to use an abundance of nudity to relate those aspects of the story. When “Unbearable” was released in 1988, there wasn’t a review that didn’t remark on its frequent states of undress.

What’s on display here is no American, titillating, “Porky’s”-style nudity, however. Kaufman instead adopts a more cultivated, European approach to the human body. Yet it must be noted that it’s primarily just female bodies on display, with Sabina’s backside making the biggest impression, so how progressive is that?

Binoche, who being a woman also doesn’t escape the roving eye of Kaufman’s camera, feels like the heart and soul of this film. While effectively expressing from the beginning Tereza’s vulnerability, which for much of the film is very nearly the woman’s defining characteristic, Binoche is equally impressive at imparting joy. It’s not so much that Tereza is easy to please, or someone with inherently modest expectations. The character has the capacity for some real depth of feeling, or at least she does as portrayed by this intuitive actress. I’ve been a consistent fan of Binoche’s film work ever since I first encountered her here.

Although he cooperated on the screenplay for “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Milan Kundera ultimately wasn’t pleased with the resulting film, and vowed thereafter to never again be a party to seeing his written work adapted for the screen. In so doing, Kundera joined a long line of similarly disgruntled novelists, many of whom no doubt had just cause for their consternation. This, however, appears to be a case of a writer unable or unwilling to appreciate the fact that film should first and foremost be a visual medium. Or perhaps Kundera just didn’t want to loosen his grip on the source work. In any event, his was a decidedly minority opinion.

My affection for the picture is my no means unconditional. While I’m repeatedly struck by how deftly Kaufman shifts the film’s tone as the story weaves around its corners, while I’m a significant admirer of the soundtrack — heavy on the pastoral music of Czech composer Leos Janacek with a nifty Czech-language rendition of “Hey Jude” by Marta Kubisova added for fun — neither can I overlook what is to me the movie’s one significant flaw, inherited from the novel. It irks me at every re-watching.

(SPOILER ALERT) The story concludes with the random, utterly unnecessary death of Tomas and Tereza in a vehicular accident. It’s inappropriate to criticize a motion picture for what it isn’t, but I would rather watch the couple, happy at last, simply disappear into the distance as their ramshackle truck rambles down a country lane in the morning mist, and leave it at that. Besides, we’ve already covered this ground with Karenin.

That’s the name of the exceptionally cute dog owned by Tomas and Tereza, a mutt that’s been with the star-crossed couple through thick and thin. She’s just a pup when she’s seen cavorting with the newlyweds. Later, Tereza is seen panicking and reaching out to retrieve the dog as Soviet tanks come rumbling down their street. Karenin comes with her owners when they flee to Switzerland, and later accompanies Tereza back behind the Iron Curtain. And she’s with the reunited couple as they build a life in the country, playing with the farm animals.

And finally Karenin dies, of old age. She’s buried under a tree in a sad and quiet scene, the symbol of so much Tomas and Tereza have experienced in their life together, but now unable to remain with them any longer as anything more than a memory. If this is foreshadowing, it doesn’t get much clumsier.

Todd Hill is a former journalist with 30 years of experience, much of it in film criticism, who misses neither journalism nor the film beat.

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