The Unbearable Lightness of Being Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Originally released in 1988, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a lengthy (almost three-hour) adaptation of Milan Kundera’s surprise best-selling novel that at first glance appeared to be unfilmable – there’s no real story, the characters are more than somewhat elusive, and there are a vast number philosophical digressions that would appear to defy cinematic translation (a whole chapter, for instance, is devoted to exploring a peculiarly Czech kind of sorrow).

So it’s a real surprise that the film turned out to be such a success – and an even more pleasant surprise that it stands up so well over a decade later, especially given that the revolution in Czechoslovakia less than two years after the film’s release meant that it could have become dated very quickly.

To be honest, there probably wasn’t much danger of that – ultimately, the film is about people rather than politics. Clearly, the scenes relating to Czech history and political events are vitally important to the narrative (as they were to Kundera’s own life and work), but they’re also specifically historical scenes: a snapshot of a moment in time rather than a sense of continuation to the present day. Indeed, the film’s bucolic closing scenes on the farm suggest a complete remoteness from the rest of the world, and could have been set at any point in recent Czech history – even after the Velvet Revolution.

So what’s it about? At base, it’s a love triangle between disarmingly young brain surgeon Tomás (Daniel Day Lewis), his wife Tereza (Juliette Binoche) and his lover Sabina (Lena Olin), though this is far from the usual soap operatics: these characters’ various relationships are used to tease out the complex metaphysical ideas that suffuse the novel, and do so with considerable success. The film traces their lives through the euphoria of late 1960s Prague – when it seemed as though socialism genuinely had developed a human face – through the horror of the Soviet invasion, exile in Switzerland and, ultimately, a return home to a radically different country that is simultaneously their homeland and strangely foreign territory – both in terms of the political landscape and their own innermost feelings.

The “unbearable lightness of being” refers to the realisation that you only live once – and it’s a term that can also be applied to the various states the film’s characters go through: euphoria, exhilaration, eroticism, exile. Director Philip Kaufman and his three leads (plus a superb supporting cast that spans the gamut of European art cinema: Stellan Skarsgard, Daniel Olbrychski, Erland Josephson) do a remarkable job of conveying Kundera’s complex prose in dramatic form, though what’s most refreshing about the film is that despite its length and heavyweight reputation it’s chiefly characterised by a sly, mocking wit that enlivens even the most abstruse philosophical discussion.

This is Criterion’s first anamorphic DVD, and hopefully very far from the last, as it’s superb: a virtually flawless original print (there are a couple of tiny dust marks, but they’re no big deal) given a state-of-the-art transfer that does a terrific job of reproducing cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s full palette of colours and complex lighting effects. As for sound, it’s the kind of film whose sonic thrills are subtle and understated rather than bold and brash, and the Dolby Pro-Logic soundtrack perfectly reproduces the film’s original Dolby Stereo. Chapter stops have been set at a generous 43.

Disappointingly, given Criterion’s usual everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to extras, there’s just one additional feature (unless you count a short printed essay by critic Michael Sragow), but the accompanying commentary ranks very high among the best I’ve heard. Well up to Criterion’s usual impeccably-edited standard, it features director Philip Kaufman, writer Jean-Claude Carrière (whose track record includes a number of Buñuel scripts as well as adaptations of The Tin Drum and Cyrano de Bergerac), editor Walter Murch (the largely unsung genius behind the complex multilayered soundtracks of The Conversation and Apocalypse Now) and actress Lena Olin.

As a bonus, the commentary has been indexed separately, which is a great help considering the length of the film and the range of material being discussed. The track is at its best during the Soviet invasion sequences, with some riveting material about how the genuine 1968 footage was shot by film students at the Prague film school, who would hand their undeveloped footage to anyone leaving the country (Tereza also does this in the film), and there are also fascinating nuggets of information about Kundera, Janácek (the source of much of the film’s haunting, largely piano-based score), and the search for an ending (the unforgettably mysterious final shot apparently wasn’t originally intended as such – it was only when the film was being edited that its innate power became apparent).

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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