Criterion // 1988 // 172 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Chief Justice Sean McGinnis (Retired) // October 2nd, 1999
Passion, Love, Turmoil, Jealousy, Politics, Communism, Death.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the better movies of the '80s and certainly one of the most erotic films ever made, but it does so without lingering. It is a movie about voyeurism without being a voyeur itself.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being tells the story of three people falling in and out of various forms of love. Tomas, the central character, is a brain surgeon in Prague who reminds me of Don Juan on steroids. His entire purpose for being is to work and sample all the female body has to offer, in as many forms as possible. He is perhaps the purest form of womanizer. It is not that he treats women badly; on the contrary, he is a splendid lover who respects each and every woman he meets in the only way he knows how, by making love to them.
Tomas has a relationship with an independent artist named Sabina that is sensual and erotic. She knows what makes him tick and accepts him for what he is, emotional warts and all. But her acceptance is flawed because she suffers, largely, from many of the same symptoms as Tomas. She, too, is afraid of opening up and finds solace in the physical realm of life.
Tomas is sent out to a country town for an operation where he meets, only briefly, a young woman working as a waitress, Tereza. He returns to Prague after only speaking with her for a few brief moments, but it is clear that there is something between them. Several days later, Tereza shows up at his door, jobless and homeless. She has left everything behind to be with him, and he takes her in. They eventually marry, after she asks him, and all is well with the world.
But Tomas cannot give up his lust for other women. And Sabina knows it. And it begins to tear them apart. She cannot understand his separation between the physical act of love and the emotional impact that love has, even though he has explained it to her several times.
The tale of our three heroes takes place against the backdrop of the Communist invasion of Prague in 1968. The invasion begins innocently enough, but then turns violent, driving Sabina out of Prague and into Geneva Switzerland. During the invasion, Tereza finds her voice and independence as a photographer of the happenings around her. Another example of the voyeur in us all. This newfound power as a chronicler of her world stirs her and gives her strength. But the Communists have seized nearly every piece of film exposed in Prague during the occupation and are now using the photos to identify rogue elements and torture individuals who might be a danger to the State. It is her understanding of this action that drives the independence from Tereza and she and Tomas follow Sabina out of Prague and into Geneva.
While in Geneva, the three fall into their old habits as Tomas absconds away to be with Sabina in days and nights of meaningless passion. Sabina even rejects a professor who has such love for her that he leaves his wife in hope of building a life with her. Her prelude to her rejection of him is a painful scene as we are allowed to see her happiness and sadness, joy and pain as he proclaims his love for her. It is clear she loves him too but rejects him out of some self loathing or feeling of unworthiness. It is never quite explained, but it is a painful scene to watch nevertheless.
In Geneva, Tereza has lost her voice and spirit of independence. She is dependent on Tomas for everything and so strikes out on her own to return to the place where she felt empowered, Prague. She explains away this move out of a fear of him leaving her because of her dependence and weakness. Tomas follows quickly as he discovers his true love for her pulling him back to the place where he knows he will be ridiculed and vilified. They are reunited in Prague and begin again to live the life they had left behind, with a few twists.
Tomas again sinks into his pattern of sleeping with women he meets on the street while Tereza keeps trying to understand his actions. In an effort to identify with him and become more like to him (perhaps in an attempt to win his respect?) she has an affair of her own, but it is clearly difficult for her. After learning that her entire affair may have been a setup by the Communists to give them material to blackmail Tomas into signing a document supporting their regime, she decides to leave Prague yet again. Unfortunately, this time the Communists have seized their passports and they are relegated to an escape into the countryside outside Prague. Ironically, it is here that they find at least an element of true happiness, where Tomas is removed from all temptations of the female body other than his wife and she is able to find her own independence by contributing on the farm where they live.
The acting here is splendid. Daniel Day-Lewis (The Boxer, The Last of the Mohicans) is magnificent as Tomas. His portrayal is filled with a detached passion and lust for life, but in a clearly unfulfilled way. For all his love in a physical world, he is clearly devoid of any enjoyment -- for he never dances until the final scenes of the movie, not even with his wife. The only glitch with his performance is just matter of circumstance -- and that is the UNCANNY resemblance to Butthead of Beavis and Butthead fame. Clearly the buffoonish cartoon character was based on this look. My God, what an uncanny resemblance!
Lena Olin (Romeo is Bleeding, Mystery Me) is gloriously sensual in her portrayal of Sabina, the third par of the love triangle. Her performance is the most nuanced of the lot, perhaps because her character is written that way or perhaps due to her extraordinary ability. Juliette Binoche (The English Patient, Three Colors Trilogy) is wonderfully innocent in her portrayal of wife Tereza. She is clearly affected by Tomas from the beginning and her virginal character transforms into a powerful woman who knows what she wants, but unfortunately unsure of how to go about getting it.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the latest release form the Criterion Collection. Several months ago, Criterion promised to begin releasing films that were anamorphically enhanced "when appropriate." To my knowledge, this is the second such release. The video here is from a new digital transfer taken from a 35mm interpositive. It has its problems, but they are clearly outweighed by the positive elements of the transfer. The colors here are dead on. Flesh tones are correct and there is no oversaturation or bleeding. The image is usually sharp without being overly so, and the grayscale is dead on as well. Blacks are very black and the palette is a bit soft at times, but with a purpose. Unfortunately, I noticed quite a bit of nicks and scratches at times, but it was never a distraction. The other problem was a bit of a softness and graininess in just a few scenes. Again, it wasn't something that permeated the entire presentation, but it is there, so be aware of it.
The audio is presented in its original Dolby stereo mode and is taken from the original 35mm magnetic master. The sound here is quite good and I am always a supporter of including the original sound configuration on the audio tracks of DVDs. But the wallop afforded by a new 5.1 audio mix would have helped this film at times, especially during the invasion sequences when the Russians rolled several tanks into Prague. This is not really a complaint per se, but rather a recommendation for future consideration. I have no problem with this audio transfer other than that. The audio was clearly presented and always intelligible. There dialogue was never tinny or thin and it was always well localized to its source. Overall, a fine presentation.
The only extra included on this disc is a commentary track with Lena Olin, director Philip Kaufman, co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere and editor Walter Murch. I would have liked to see and hear more, but I suspect the length of the film prohibited Criterion from including many more extras on the disc. Moreover, if I had to choose one extra that I wish was included on every disc, it would be a commentary track hands down, so I am very grateful for this one. Moreover, this is the usual Criterion-style commentary, which is preferable to the usual studio style where people simply talk over the movie. This track puts some production value and thought into splicing the comments together, rather than simply turning the commentators loose and turning on the mic.
This excellent film is a masterpiece of sorts. It blends political intrigue with sex and the meaning of happiness all into a three-hour, well-paced ride. It is clearly not for everyone, but I would recommend it, especially if you are a fan of, say, The English Patient as it has some similar themes running throughout.
Both disc and movie are acquitted without reservation.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 172 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary By Philip Kaufman, Jean-Claude Carriere, Walter Murch And Lena Olin