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.