The Unbearable Lightness of Being Reviews
As a cross between informally analytical and unabashedly thrill seeking when it comes to movie-watching, I found "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" to be a slow but ravishingly languid psychosexual drama, as sometimes fatiguing as it is regal and effortlessly erotic. It's a movie so perfectly designed and so perfectly acted that I find myself appalled at my own reaction: it's exemplary filmmaking, and yet I see it as impenetrable and maybe even a little cold to the touch.
It's possible that my own recoiling is a direct result of the way the movie's ideas are much more empirical than its emotional content. As it takes place just as the 1968 Prague Spring was beginning to take off, anatomizing the effect the conflict had on domestic life at its peak, it studies the broad relationship between war and peace while also questioning the psychological impact adamant self-indulgence can have on a person once it begins to wane.
Because "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is adapted from the Milan Kundera novel of the same name, the intellectual conceptions don't always make for consuming cinema. Culminating realism and highbrow psychological facilitations are engaging to a point, but in the ambit of a nearly three hour film, the drama is what should exhilarate, and the movie sometimes frustratingly refrains from the crashing of catharsis necessary to counteract its infinite mutedness.
The film finds its anti-hero in Daniel Day-Lewis, who, in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is Tomas, a dashing brain surgeon as skilled with the scalpel as he is with the opposite sex. A womanizer who seems to predominantly spend his free-time seducing and then ditching beautiful femmes, his life is drenched in pleasure and, in response, drains his existence of any real meaning. When we first meet him, he's still entrenched in a rocky relationship with Sabina (Lena Olin), a free-spirited artist who seems to have everything in common with Tomas. But in reality, their sex is a lot more lucrative than their conversation, therefore rendering Tomas's only real kinship as something slightly artificial.
But as he continues on his trek of meaningless bedding, he meets Tereza (Juliette Binoche), an innocent young waitress he encounters while away on business. Though she's far less world weary than the earthy Sabina, Tereza carries a virtuous spark that hypnotizes Tomas. They quickly become bedfellows and, as time slowly wanders on, they marry, much to our surprise.
Marriage, though, doesn't suit Tomas, who continues seeing other women. But when the Soviet Union invades Czechoslovakia, his and Tereza's relationship strengthens, not because Tomas suddenly becomes monogamous but because both come to realize that having each other in a world of torment is much better than loneliness. As things calm down, however, Tereza begins having doubts, and Tomas begins seeing Sabina again, which can only forge a woeful path.
Involving subplots blossom, too, most notably including Sabina's affair with a good-hearted (and married) university professor (Derek de Lint), and the association between Tereza and Sabina, who find sexual tension whirring between them any moment they're in the same room. The former is convincingly grievous but the latter is galvanic, climaxing with a brilliantly executed sequence that concerns the women taking sexy photographs of one another for Tereza's photography portfolio.
Even with its wide-ranging theatrics, though, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is too long and slowly paced to ceaselessly hold our attention. But its leading actors are lambent and restlessly sultry, and the cinematography by Sven Nykvist is thrivingly voluptuous in its warm and its color (and his comparatively documentary-like lensing during scenes of civil war is breathtaking). Its a sensual and stirring epic gorgeous in its artistic merit but nonetheless inaccessible in its emotional output. I'm mixed, to say the least, but that shouldn't suggest that I can't recognize it as virtuoso filmmaking.
Director Philip Kaufman has had an uneven career, he has been involved in either writing or directing some of the greatest films in the last forty years, he's also been involved in some of the worst. The man who co-wrote the Clint Eastwood film "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and provided the key plotline to Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark" also directed two of the twenty-five best films of the 1980's in "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." His style of directing seems very European, but despite that he was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1936, and many of his movies deal with very American ideals such as individualism and integrity.
Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a successful surgeon living in Prague. He is quite the playboy and sleeps with several women. Only one woman understands him though, the free spirited artist Sabina (Lena Olin). Sabina and Tomas are a lot alike, they don't want to be emotionally attached because they feel it would weigh them down. One day Tomas is sent to a spa town for an operation and he meets the kind and sweet Tereza (Juliette Binoche). Tomas and Tereza begin to become romantic with one another and she moves in with him, but this doesn't disrupt his sexual escapades with other women.
This may be understood as only a love story, but it's much more than that. There are underlying philosophical and political underlings that bring this film to life. Set in a time when Czechoslovakia had a little more freedom before the Prague Spring when the Soviet Union invaded. These events have consequences for Tomas, Tereza and Sabina, who all leave for a life in Switzerland. Tereza, although, can't stand the lightness for which Tomas takes his life and sex. Everything just seems so heavy for her and she feels that she is a burden for Tomas, who must take care of her. She goes back to Prague realizing that she is disrupting Tomas's freedom. Tomas follows her back, much to her surprise. Tomas is unable to be faithfull and Tereza knows this. What she doesn't understand is how someone can make love without being in love. She tells Tomas she wishes to try it.
As a document of the intelligentsia in Prague before the Soviet invasion, it does a good job in portraying some aspects of their lifestyle and the relative freedom they experienced. Tomas isn't exactly political, but he is prompted to write an article condemning the Soviet high command for being unaware and unsympathetic to political purges likening them to Oedipus in Greek mythology. The repercussions of this will cost Tomas his job and his livelihood.
The acting is superb, Lewis nails it and has a certain aloofness about him, a distance in human relations that doesn't involve sex. There's no doubt the man isn't intelligent, but Tomas comes off as unsure about love. He can't help that he's fallen in love with Tereza, and he is unsure how to handle it and still conquer all women sexually. Juliette Binoche is so innocent and childlike with her character that it's no wonder Tomas does feel burdened by her at times before realizing he does love her. Both Lewis and Binoche would go on to become two of the better actors in cinema in the next thirty years.
The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous, done by the Swedish master Sven Nykvist, whose career highlights include two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography for the Ingmar Bergman films "Cries and Whispers" and "Fanny and Alexander." Nykvist would receive his third Oscar nomination for "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere would receive an Oscar nomination for the Screenplay.
The dialogs were strange and often nonsensical. People's behavior was often strange and the movie never gave any real insight into their motivations. And if there was any character development, it certainly was lost on me. I found it pretty impossible to connect with any of the main characters at all, and for a movie like this it seems pretty essential to be able to connect with at least its main characters.
I hoped the movie would start making sense by the end, but unfortunately it never did. It was a total waste of almost 3 hours of my life...