Film scholar Annette Insdorf does a great job summing up The Unbearable Lightness of Being in her new book on Philip Kaufman:
Not every great motion picture continues to yield new aspects of stylistic enchantment and thematic depth after a dozen viewings, but The Unbearable Lightness of Being is certainly one of them. Despite its approximately three-hour length, not a single frame is gratuitous. Every moment contributes to a vision that comprehends political history (and its representation), perception (and its limitations), personal freedom (and its price), as well as cinematic storytelling. Its source is Milan Kundera’s seemingly unadaptable novel of 1984, filled with philosophical asides about eroticism and mortality. Kaufman cowrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carrière (Luis Buñuel’s accomplice, whose script collaborations include Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, Daniel Vigne’s The Return of Martin Guerre, and Miloš Forman’s Valmont and Goya’s Ghosts). Indeed, Kaufman recalled in 2002 that Forman—who had been a student of Kundera’s at the Czech Film School—offered him a project: “Miloš had been approached before me to do Kundera’s book by a producer (before Saul Zaentz got involved). But with two boys living in Prague, it was too risky a project for him to do. He knew how much I admired the book and called me to see if I was interested.” Unable to film this testament to freedom in Communist Czechoslovakia, he shot in Lyons, France, using the Czech filmmaker Jan Němec—who had lived through the late 1960s in Prague—as an advisor. (Němec has a cameo as the photographer who is accused by the interrogator during the Soviet-invasion sequence.) Together with the cinematographer Sven Nykvist (best known for Ingmar Bergman’s films), they created a sumptuous visual tale as well as a complex meditation of voyeurism, politics, and morality.
Philip Kaufman, by Annette Insdorf, is available now as part of the University of Illinois Press’s Contemporary Film Directors series. Excerpt used by permission of the author.