• The Unbearable Lightness of Being

    By Michael Sragow

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a profoundly beguiling movie about sex, love, and rebellion. Its lead characters caper through Prague Spring, Czechoslovakia’s 1968 version of the Summer of Love, and then try to withstand the effects of Soviet occupation. They achieve an offhand grandeur. As they drop verbal bombshells about the murderous duplicity of politics and the uglification of the universe, they never lose their ardor or originality. All they want to rule them is passion.

    In his novel, Milan Kundera describes his neurosurgeon hero, Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), as an “epic” Don Juan, “prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world.” In the movie, Philip Kaufman, who co-wrote and directed, succeeds in making Tomas’ two key relationships—with his waiflike wife Tereza (Juliette Binoche), and an independent artist, Sabina (Lena Olin)—embody that infinite variety.

    When asked why novelists don’t often make great playwrights, Kurt Vonnegut said, “It’s because they don’t know that theater is dance.” That notion applies triply to the kinetic art of movies. The triumph of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that Kaufman and company choreograph the diverse segments of Kundera’s fiction like a folk dance, a rock musical, and a pastoral ballet.

    You could say that Tomas is a non-dancer who does one heartbreaking dance—with his wife—before he dies. The key scene (politically and personally) comes before he marries Tereza or dances with her. During Prague Spring, Communist officials glower as a student crowd at a nightclub bops to Buddy Holly. Tereza, not Tomas, takes to the floor—and her joy as she bounces around with another man makes Tomas jealous enough to marry her. It’s one of the novel’s few unexplained paradoxes. Tomas, the keen, voracious sensualist who cuts into the brain at work and caresses the female body every chance he can get, doesn’t care to dance. Tereza, who’s mystified by the power of her body, can release herself on the dance floor.

    The way Kaufman handles the paradox, it’s the stuff of existential romance. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, opposites attract and fulfill each other. In 1987, Daniel Day-Lewis told me that he got a handle on Tomas by seeing him “as a scientist, who’s fearful of the things that can’t be rationalized by science and so on. And that is the tension of the story. Because falling in love, for people like him, is the equivalent of falling off a fifteen-story building. It’s not something he’s readily equipped to deal with. He’s managed to equate his conquest of women with his need to conquer the world—as if he’s a scalpel cutting open the prostrate body.” Juliette Binoche said she saw Tereza as a woman obsessed with the mystery of nakedness, a romantic who wrestles with how little or how much her body reveals of her soul: “I thought that being naked, for Tereza, would have been a mistake, because it was a mystery, a secret. And if you show that secret, there’s no Tereza.” As Tomas, Day-Lewis is an acute, amorous observer: You can tell how much love he holds for his wife when you see the way he drinks her in with his eyes. And as Tereza, Binoche incarnates devotion and sheepish intimacy with instinctiveness and brio. You understand why a man would chuck a cushy life for her—why, having escaped from Prague to Switzerland after the ’68 Soviet invasion, Tomas follows her when she goes back.

    It’s not surprising that Kaufman, the director of movies such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Right Stuff, would pick up on Kundera’s ironies and emotional shadings. What’s amazing is how marvelously he realizes them. When Tereza finds Soviet-occupied Prague almost terminally dispiriting, she uproots Tomas once again, to an isolated farm where they and their dog Karenin befriend the commune chief and his pet pig. And here, of all places, they achieve marital bliss. On what we know will be the last night of their lives, in a country inn, Tereza balances her feet on Tomas’ and they dance toward the door of their room.

    Improbably but persuasively, Sabina serves as a bridge between Tomas and Tereza, and between them and the audience: She’s as conscious of nuance as Tomas, and as intuitive as Tereza. Lena Olin gives a protean performance, notable not merely for its sensual breadth but also for its empathy. We appreciate both Tomas and Tereza more when we see them through Sabina’s eyes.

    Olin makes the euphoria and heartbreak of the climactic sequence possible. When Kaufman and Carrière, in a variation on the novel’s flash-forwards, show us Sabina learning of her friends’ deaths, Olin’s ruminative grief is soul-shaking, not tear-jerking. Kaufman consummates Kundera’s description of the final scene: “The sadness was form, the happiness content.” His film of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a sublime dance of death and life.


  • By Mark J. Lovas
    August 28, 2010
    06:40 PM

    The author, Milan Kundera, has said that this movie has very little to do with the book--either the spirit of the characters or the spirit of the book itself. Indeed, after this film he no longer allows any adaptations of his work.
  • By Mark J. Lovas
    August 31, 2010
    04:59 AM

    I am NOT watching this movie, and DO NOT plan to. Kundera says it has nothing to do with his book. I have added this note to counter a certain subtle form of deception ....
  • By Mark J. Lovas
    September 02, 2010
    05:12 PM

    I now believe that my entry above dated 28 August is a mis-translation. I apologize. The word "spirit" is too weak. It would be more accurate to say that (according to Kundera) the fillm has precious little to do with the heart (or soul) of either the book or the characters.
  • By Alex V.
    November 03, 2010
    03:06 PM

    Who cares what Milan Kundera says about the film, read his novel; who cares what Philip Kaufman says about the novel, watch his film.
  • By Benji
    December 01, 2010
    02:46 PM

    Thank you, Alex, for stating my feelings exactly. Incredible film, wonderful novel; the relationship is complementary in nature.
  • By Mark J Lova
    January 31, 2011
    06:24 PM

    It's a good question: Why care what Kundera says? I did assume that some people would care. I think if you want to do more than be a consumer of art, if you think that movies and books are not just things you use once and then throw away, you should care too. Obviously, you might like the book, and not care about the film, or you might like the film, not the book. (etc.) However, if you care about the book, you might at least wonder what Kundera was complaining about. Maybe it depends upon the degree to which you think a film should be a faithful translation of a book whose title it has taken. Translations can be better and worse, and it is sometimes said of a good translation that it is a work of art in itself And not every novelist complains about the film adaptation of his novel. (I seem to remember that Michael Ondaatje was very happy with the film adaptation of "The English Patient.") And, (nod to Benji) we can learn something even from a translation with flaws. (But if a translation is bad enough, it's not much help.) But, I think the most important point is that the book comes from a specific cultural location, a specific historical period (what is commonly called "communism"), and it features people who do not speak English. It is important to recognize the possibility of mis-representing that cultural milieu, and mis-representing the content of the novel. If you do not wish to live in a monocultural world where we suppose that everything can be reduced to American (USA) or English-speaking categories, then you should care about what Kundera says. (Maybe you can translate everything into English with a hell of a lot of work and with some luck and genius, or maybe not.) A weakness in all that I've just said is that I am essentially ignoring the film. I am not trying to figure out what exactly its weaknesses were. (But I do suppose that they exist, though they might not spoil the pleasure of watching the film for everyone) PS This is a re-write of something I submitted earlier but didn't appear. I hope I won't be repeating myself and apologize in advance if I have.
    • By Carlos
      July 08, 2013
      06:17 PM

      I think you have said enough. We'll make up our own minds.