Tuesday 15 January 2019

Movie Review: The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988)

A three-way grand romance set against the Prague Spring, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being explores life's profound choices through tumultuous personal relationships.

It's 1968, and the winds of political freedom appear to sweep through Prague. Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a charismatic doctor and an irresistible sexual magnet to all women, although he is closest to Sabina (Lena Olin), a free-spirited artist. Neither of them are interested in commitment, although they are soul mates in every other way.

Tomas: I must go.
Sabina: Don't you ever spend the night at the woman's place?
Tomas: Never!
Sabina: What about when the woman's at your place?
Tomas: I tell her I have insomnia... anything. Besides, I have a very narrow bed.
Sabina: Are you afraid of women, Doctor?
Tomas: Of course.

On a trip to a countryside spa to perform surgery, Tomas is entranced by young and innocent waitress Tereza (Juliette Binoche). The feeling is mutual, she follows him to Prague and they are soon married. She finds work as a photographer and he quickly resumes his philandering ways. Just as Tereza is reaching her tolerance breaking point Soviet tanks rumble into the city, crushing any hopes of liberty. First Sabina and then Tomas and Tereza relocate to Geneva. Sabina meets and starts a relationship with married professor Franz (Derek de Lint), but starting a new life in a foreign country will not be easy and Prague will exert a powerful pull.

Milan Kundera's novel was published in 1984, and four years later director Philip Kaufman brought it to the screen with a script by Jean-Claude Carrière. While Kundera did not approve of the adaptation, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being is a masterful cinematic achievement, a dreamy composition drenched in European sensibility and perfectly deploying the classic romance within upheaval template. Running close to three hours, the pace is luxurious and the visuals rich with the texture of Prague, politics and personal passions.

Through the story of Tomas' love for both Sabina and Tereza and the women's mutual appreciation of their roles in his life, Kaufman draws out the essentials for each character. For Tomas the pursuit of sexual pleasure with a succession of partners is an absolute. As he cycles through cities, careers and circumstances, his eyes will always wander.

Tomas (many times): Take off your clothes.

For Sabina unfettered freedom matters, and her jagged artistry and love of mirrors combines easily with a distaste for ever allowing anyone else to share her reflection. And Tereza is a model of patience and sacrifice, willing to do anything to stand by the one man she loves, no matter how many times he strays. Her dedication leads to sordid dead-ends in trying to emulate his emotional detachment from sexual adventurism. Tomas thrives within the carefree lightness of his being, Tereza finds it unbearable, and yet they deeply love each other.

Tereza, speaking to Tomas: I know I'm supposed to help you, but I can't. Instead of being your support I'm your weight. Life is very heavy to me, but it is so light to you. I can't bear this lightness, this freedom... I'm not strong enough.

Kaufman weaves a broader search of happiness theme seamlessly into the lovers' travails. Choices about where to live, whether to conform or resist, and tests of commitment to each other and to independent thought are interjected throughout the film. Places matter and influence well-being: Prague is the warmth of home first with the exciting freedom of expression then with the steel boot of communism, while Geneva offers cold safety in a foreign land. Late in the film an unexpected locale and the opportunity for a new lifestyle is presented, allowing the activist urbanites to explore a surprisingly attractive dynamic.

Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche are unforgettable in their roles, and create three compelling people well worth spending time with.

With frequent scenes featuring lovemaking and nudity, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being targets mature audiences willing to invest the time to soak up its tender brilliance. All three characters carry their affections alongside their faults, and they are all also endearingly human in their uncompromising search for a life worth living.

Tereza: Tomas, what are you thinking?
Tomas: I'm thinking how happy I am.

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