Starring two of the finest (and finest-looking) actors of their generation, this underrated gem is as much a study of the baggage of thirst as of its timeless appeal.
“Take off your clothes”
“But you saw everything last night”
“Well, I need to check something”
Philip Kaufman’s understated film The Unbearable Lightness of Being, based on Milan Kundera’s well-known novel of the same name, may be called conceptually thirsty. At least it begins that way. Tomaś, a Prague doctor played by a Daniel Day-Lewis still in his twenties, sleeps with all the uncannily attractive nurses he can get his hands on. And, with his dark sunglasses and darker stubble, that’s a lot of them.
Juliette Binoche’s Tereza, a waitress in a spa town outside the capital, couldn’t be less like Tomaś. She’s shy, mild-mannered, troubled by her past and anxious about her future. But Tereza, like Tomaś, suffers from a common condition: she’s horny, often. Her mousey voice and unpretentious manner, lending her the sort of innocence shared only by the protagonist of the David Bowie song Life on Mars, become an unlikely aphrodisiac. And in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, that’s all you need for a good love story.
“He doesn’t like my hat”
Of course, with Kundera, it’s never quite so simple. Sabina (Lena Olin) is the woman Tomaś shares the most with. She hosts all kinds of men in her studio and never develops feelings for any of them. “Life is so light”, she says, “It’s like an outline we can never fill in.” That’s until she meets Franz (Derek de Lint), a charming professor whose academic specialism is smouldering intensely while pretending to listen. Franz is the sort of person who respects intellect only insofar as it gets him laid: he respects it greatly. Sabina begins to feel for Franz the same way that Tomaś is unexpectedly charmed by the unusual Tereza. Sabina tells Tomaś, excitedly, “He’s handsome and he’s bright and he’s crazy about me. And he’s married. There’s only one thing: he doesn’t like my hat!”
The famous bowler hat is of great importance to Sabina, an eccentric heirloom passed down by her grandfather’s grandfather. Albeit more Royal Ascot than Alex DeLarge, it’s an emblem of her rebellion against established norms. That hat comes also to symbolise impermanence and mortality, and provides a useful reminder that sex is not such a bad way of getting to know a person.
Sabina is the most desiring of the ensemble but also the most desired. Franz’s unwanted emotional attachment to her, which we can interpret as little more than a feature of a mid-life crisis, ultimately drives her away as powerfully as the 1968 Soviet invasion pushes her into exile. Her personal Cold War against what she deems kitsch is a crusade that Sabina commits her entire life to. (In her key rallying cry from the novel, though not brought to the script, she says “My enemy is kitsch, not Communism!”) Of course, the influence of kitsch in opposing only the aesthetic consequences of a dictatorial regime are apparent. One of the story’s (numerous) great tragedies is that Sabina is, well, kitsch.
Yet that hat also comes to symbolise the inherent contradictions of the film’s approaches toward sexuality which help make it so memorable – and so contentious. Kaufman’s take on The Unbearable Lightness of Being brings to life the euphoric glamorisation and poignant rebuttal of sexuality Kundera explores in the novel. So how did one of the great romance films of all time provoke its original author to never allow his work to be adapted again?
“I have a very narrow bed”
“Nice to meet you. Goodbye”, Tomaś tells Tereza abruptly after their first encounter, Armie Hammer-style. They flirt and discuss literature (she’s reading Anna Karenina, “by Tolstoy”, she adds), but it’s soon time for the doctor to attend to his patients back in Prague. One of the film’s great ideas, nonetheless, is that love must withstand inconvenience. Tereza soon turns up at Tomaś’s house, crossing one of his sacred red lines: he never hosts women, and certainly doesn’t let them stay over. “I have a very narrow bed”, he says matter-of-factly. But when Tereza arrives, he’s pleased to see her.
Binoche and Day-Lewis’s physical acting as they throw each other around the room is particularly enthralling, a neat illustration of the playfulness Kundera brings to sexual encounters in the novel. When they sleep together, Tereza clutches Tomaś’s hand, which he replaces with a copy of Oedipus Rex. Here the Freudian associations begin, and dreams as well as ego become central devices in a film which chronicles four sensually minded young adults at their most human.
The story’s artistic nods to such a seminally problematic thinker are apt. The film, unfortunately, dates itself with some gratuitous female nudity and a gender gap in genitalia. A modern, feminist take on the novel would be refreshing and absorbing, if this version weren’t so authoritative. The female perspective on sexual promiscuity defines much of Sabina’s character, but the camera – like the novel’s narrator – tends to see things as a man does.
Masculinity underwrites much of the film’s visual language. Kaufman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who won two Oscars for his work with Ingmar Bergman, focus largely on the lightness-versus-weight dynamic that provides the central theme. Real archive footage from the Prague Spring is laced impressively with filmed elements involving Binoche and Day-Lewis, as Tomaś and Tereza negotiate a hazardous city in a hazardous era. Though shot largely in Lyon and Paris – the anti-communist Velvet Revolution didn’t come till one year after the film’s release – you wouldn’t think it was anywhere but Prague.
“This was no occasion for obscene games”
(A brief side-note on sex)
Throughout the film, moments of intimacy are portrayed either with humour or – in a testament to the actors – through comedy. Tomaś and Tereza’s shared sexual exuberance allows them to bask in the uncommon adventurousness enjoyed by their habit-driven characters. It is these moments, incidentally, which seem the most truthful. In one memorable image the camera stays on Day-Lewis’s bottom half as his creased trousers begin to trail his hairy legs, with Binoche’s shrieking serving as the soundtrack.
You’ll find conventional sensuality, rather, in Sabina’s intimate encounters. Though the bowler hat is her attempt to mock any of the intensity associated with sexual contact, her scenes with Tomaś, including a memorable embrace on top of a mirror, are more typical for a portrait of European infidelity. If Tereza is thick grey coats and early-sixties Beatles hair (and repression), Sabina is all stockings and big brown eyes. She is Je t’aime moi non plus to Tereza’s I Want To Hold Your Hand.
Kaufman’s proficiency in bringing to life the thirst described so uniquely by Kundera is testament to a substantive understanding of some remarkable source material. In such a sex-heavy novel it is easy to come off as sleazy, but Kundera’s ability to describe sex and its complications with a searing truthfulness is the hallmark of his work. Timeless and with baggage, he seems to say, but could you live without it?
I’m averse to quote the novel at any significant length, but this passage (from part 3: chapter 2) deserves presentation in its entirety:
“[Franz and Sabina] made love as they never had before. This was no occasion for obscene games. For this meeting was not a continuation of their erotic rendezvous, each of which had been an opportunity to think up some new little vice; it was a recapitulation of time, a hymn to their common past, a sentimental summary of an unsentimental story that was disappearing in the distance.”
In the film, however, the sex scene with the greatest aesthetic distinction is the one we least expect, a carnal same-sex encounter. Its significance makes less sense in a film which doesn’t fixate on backstory like the novel does, and could perhaps be omitted (or at least shortened). Kaufman most likely jumped at the opportunity to shoot genuine eroticism with all the connotations and complexities of the passage above. A thirsty movie needs a thirsty camera.
“Defeats and reproaches”
Where you can doubt the film’s authenticity, though, is in the accents, which are about as diverse and muddled as Tomaś’s sexual history. There’s certainly something kitsch about the fact that the four main characters, though all of Czech origin, are played by an Englishman, a French actress, a Swede and a Dutchman. But the explanation is somewhat darker: much of Czech’s sizeable diaspora avoided direct association with the film, fearing reprisals against family members at home. Miloš Forman, serving as something of a de facto executive producer, handpicked Philip Kaufman for his all-American credentials.
Even still, the film isn’t free of émigrés. The most prominent is surely Pavel Landovsky, a dissident writer and actor who had pioneered ‘living room theatre’, an illegal practice involving actors and audiences huddling in neighbours’ houses to perform plays, usually Shakespeare. Props and costumes were brought in handbags and suitcases; arrests were common. Landovsky plays the wonderful farmer Pavel. (Landovsky seems to have suffered from unimaginatively named characters for much of his career. The dissident subject of Tom Stoppard’s Czech-based television play Professional Foul, inspired by Landovsky, is also called Pavel.) Polish acting legend Daniel Olbrychski is another cast member of note, ironically playing the cynical representative of the Interior Ministry who forces Tomaś to retract his anti-Soviet essay.
This pivotal scene marks the beginning of Tomaś and Sabina’s fatal differences, and the remarkable U-turn undergone by the plot in its latter stages. Sabina’s own response to the dictatorship is comparatively cheap, opposing its poor taste in art rather than its oppressive tendencies. In the same way that Sabina is behaving self-indulgently toward an unjust status quo in Prague, it becomes apparent that her polyamorous lifestyle is less of a sincere protest against organised society than we thought. Sabina finishes her key line, “[Life] is like an outline we can’t ever fill in”, with the bleak addendum, “It’s frightening.” We’re reintroduced to Sabina’s thirst now not as a heartfelt ideological campaign but rather a coping mechanism. (I warned you about Freud.) The dishonesty of Sabina’s political attitudes, and the dishonesty of Franz’s attempts to understand her, become an important reminder of the hollowness of unfettered sexual desire, and the ultimately unfulfilling emotional foundation it offers relationships built on it.
If the political conflict is the source of drama in the bulk of Cold War literature, most notably Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is in fact much more interested in the struggle between love and sex, order and chaos. To put it in loftier terms, Kundera and Kaufman are more invested in our internal conflicts than anything outside of us; 1968 Prague is the setting but sex, in its fulfilments and crevices, is the subject. In a twist of varying scale depending on your interpretation of the story, Kundera himself is a committed monogamist, having married Vera Hrabánková in 1967. Philip Kaufman’s wife of 51 years, Rose Fisher, died of cancer in 2009.
“Man’s movements are as free as they are insignificant”
Needless to say, Kundera did not like the finished product. Despite serving as a consultant during production, he later criticised the film for its creative differences from the novel. This is hardly a rare critique from the author of source material: Nick Hornby once praised Stephen Frears’ adaptation of High Fidelity as “a film in which John Cusack reads my book.”
Admittedly, the hard edge of the novel is softened somewhat: death is a sporadic theme and existential philosophy features sparingly. Indeed, Tomaś is a much more sympathetic character onscreen; Daniel Day-Lewis initially rejected the part, feeling Tomaś was too nice.
The narrative is predominantly linear, also, unlike the book, which throws us through time and space to illustrate Nietzsche’s concept of “circular” time and eternal return. To be fair to Kaufman, such a theme is difficult to illustrate. The storytelling even of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, with its comparatively mild Nietzschean credentials, confused many. The film, still, allows a moment of non-linearity, A Star Is Born-style, to deliver a late dramatic blow which works brilliantly.
Kaufman’s film, nonetheless, is a marketable Hollywood love story rather than the muddled collection of philosophical ideas that provides the original tale. Students of the book have in large part shunned it, much like fans of Orwell have ignored the late-nineties television version of Animal Farm and appreciators of Nabokov have forgotten even Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), adapted for the screen by the great Russian himself.
The effective boycott of The Unbearable Lightness of Being continues. It is hard to find on DVD, and no Blu-Ray version exists. Yet its magnetic acting, poignant direction and its careful telling of a substance-heavy modern classic make it a genuine cinematic milestone, and a thirst trap Hall of Famer. The sooner we revisit it, the better.