Warner Bros. // 1988 // 172 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // February 13th, 2006
Sabina: I've met another man. He's the best man I've ever met. He's bright, handsome and he's crazy about me. And, he's married. There's only one thing; he doesn't like my hat.
Though Milan Kundera's novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was wildly popular, conventional wisdom deemed it to be unadaptable. In addition to several storylines, all told in a nonlinear fashion, the novel contains countless passages of pithy philosophical discourse, which are obviously difficult to incorporate into a screenplay (unless you're Terrance Malick). Despite these challenges, in 1984 writer/director Philip Kaufman (Quills) began the process of adapting Kundera's novel for the now defunct Orion Studios. Four years later, in February 1988, The Unbearable Lightness of Being was released in American cinemas. Would Kaufman prove the naysayers wrong?
Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis, The Ballad of Jack & Rose) is a young hot-shot doctor working in a Czechoslovakian hospital in the late 1960s. In between performing brain surgeries Tomas unwinds by bedding a bevy of Slovak beauties. His only regular partner is Sabina (Lena Olin, Alias), an artist who seemingly enjoys casual sex as much as any man.
Then Tomas meets Tereza (Juliette Binoche, Chocolat), a plucky, bucolic waitress. Unlike most of Tomas's cosmopolitan bedfellows, Tereza cherishes monogamy, and she likes to sleep over. In the midst of a whirlwind romance, Tomas finds himself marrying Tereza and struggling to hide his continuing marital transgressions. In the midst of this domestic strife, Czechoslovakia is invaded by the Soviet Union. Tomas, who considers himself apolitical, is placed on a list of Soviet's list of provocateurs. Tereza, who is a rapid dissenter, is willing to risk her life in defiance of the communist invaders. Meanwhile, Tomas continues his philandering while Tereza explores her sexuality with an abiding Sabina.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the most authentic movies to ever come out of the Hollywood studio system. The majority of the film's action takes place in Czechoslovakia circa 1968, and every single aspect of the movie, from the set design to wardrobe to dialogue, adeptly confirms this time and location. This achievement is all the more remarkable because Kaufman was not allowed to shoot in Czechoslovakia (he substituted Yugoslavia and France for 1960s Prague). Yet, after allowing a group of Czech exiles living in New York to preview the film, Kaufman was repeatedly asked how he received permission to film behind the Iron Curtain.
It is not only set design that makes this film so authentic. There is one scene in particular that perfectly symbolizes the movie's wonderful aesthetic. Tereza makes a surprise visit to Tomas's Prague apartment. The two speak awkwardly until Tomas realizes that Tereza has a cold. In a none-too-subtle attempt at seduction, Tomas convinces her to remove her shirt so he can "examine" her. Tereza haltingly lifts her arms to remove her shirt while Tomas flitters around her in a wholly unprofessional manner. The scene is sensual and erotic and sure to make your heart flutter with anticipation of the inevitable kiss. Then, once Tereza's shirt is entirely pulled over her head, we see two sizable tufts of hair sprouting from her underarms.
Two notes on this: the first is that while most American women shave their underarms, my guess is that this was probably not much of a priority among virginal Eastern Europeans girls in 1960s Czechoslovakia. Allowing Binoche to grow out her hair (or, not ordering her to shave) was a brave, effective choice by Kaufman. Additionally, Binoche deserves praise for portraying herself as "unfeminine" for the sake of the character and the movie.
The second is that the sensuality of the scene is not inhibited by body hair, but enhanced by it. It is so rare to see a sensual woman in American film portrayed as anything less than the embodiment of the American ideal (think Jessica Alba). Yet, if Jessica Alba had played Tereza, the fragile illusion of 1960s Czechoslovakia this film manifests so effectively could easily devolve into ridiculous swill like Swing Kids. It is the strict attention to detail, and commitment to authenticity, that elevates this scene beyond mere titillation, and catapults this film into near-greatness.
Of course, a lot of credit also must go to Kaufman and his co-writer, Jean-Claude Carriere. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a wonderful, unwieldy book that they managed to craft into a film with a strong central plot that maintains the novel's wistful irreverence. Though the movie depicts one of the darkest moments in Czechoslovakia's history, Kaufman still encourages you to laugh. The entire cast assists him by maneuvering deftly between drama and comedy. While Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche have both reached an unimpeachable respectability in their craft (with good reason), Lena Olin easily holds her own and probably delivers the film's finest performance. Of all the film's characters, it is the sexy, sensualist Sabina that you are going to be thinking about before nodding off to sleep.
For a modestly budgeted film from the '80s, the movie's picture is surprisingly clear. There are scenes where the picture is sharp enough that you can pick out each individual speck of dust on a car's windshield. There are no moments that test the film's soundtrack, but I think it's safe to say that this print is as good, or better, than of any of Unbearable Lightness's previous incarnations on DVD.
Yet for a two-disc Special Edition, The Unbearable Lightness of Being's extras are somewhat underwhelming. Emotional History, the making-of documentary, provides some interesting tidbits on the technical aspects of the film, but seems lacking without the participation of any of the cast or Milan Kundera. The commentary track does include Olin, but the three other participants (Kaufman, Carriere and editor Walker Murch) are the same talking heads who provided the bulk of material for the documentary. As such, there is a lot of information overlap between the two features. Also, this is the same commentary that was available on Criterion's release of Unbearable Lightness, so many admirers of the movie will likely have heard it before. It should be noted as well that the four participants on the commentary track were not in the same room, so there is none of the back-and-forth communication, which is always kind of fun.
In the DVD's supplemental materials every person involved in this film expresses unabashed admiration for Kundera's novel. This is well-deserved praise, but it seems to have rendered them all incapable of cutting out enough of the novel's material to create a two-hour movie. As good as this film is, at nearly three hours in length, it runs a little long. There are subplots to the main story that, while interesting, should have been cut in deference to the average human attention span.
Also, this is one of the few DVDs that requires one to change discs in the midst of the film. The movie is long (see above) but not long enough to justify this.
Don't let the serious subject matter scare you away. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is funny, erotic, enlightening and thoroughly entertaining.
For the movie, and all those associated with it, not guilty. But Warner Bros., next time you release a classic film in a two-disc special edition, I want you to really explore the studio space.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary by: director-screenwriter Philip Kaufman, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, editor Walter Murch, and costar Lena Olin
* Emotional History: The Making of The Unbearable Lightness of Being
* Theatrical Trailer
* Previous DVD Verdict review