The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Dir: Philip Kaufman
Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.
It’s no secret that we as a culture have lost our ability to be patient. The very nature of technology urges us to do things faster and if we aren’t instantly gratified, we move on. It’s a state of perpetual ADD, and I’m as guilty as anyone. As someone who needs 20mg of Adderall just to shower some days, it’s rare to find a movie that runs almost three hours and doesn’t make me fidget and start thinking about funfetti cupcakes or what my dog does when I’m not home. Lucky for me, Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is just such a film. Not only is it a gripping story, it also manages to present intense philosophical and political questions with a casual ease at an even-keeled, calming pace that makes you sit still and forget that you should be Twittering.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being begins in 1968 with the introduction of Tomas, a brain surgeon living in Prague. Played by Daniel Day-Lewis (with a wicked Greg Brady-esque hairdo), Tomas is a self-admitted womanizer, a playboy who has a clear distinction between sex and love. He seems to float from woman to woman with an appreciation for both pleasure and solitude; his female counterpart is Sabina (Lena Olin), an artist with whom he has a no-strings-attached relationship. When we meet Sabina, she and Tomas are engaged in an acrobatic tangle of sweat and sex- it’s clear that they are able to enjoy each other while still remaining emotionally detached. This scene is beautifully erotic and clearly emulates the boundaries Tomas and Sabina have set. Their love may be platonic, but their physical passion is unrestrained.
On a business call, Tomas meets Tereza (an outstanding Juliette Binoche), a waitress who falls in love with him from the moment she sees him. Tomas is surprisingly captured by Tereza’s romantic innocence and finds himself breaking all his own rules- he allows her to move in with him, and soon they are married. Even so, Sabina and Tomas continue to see each other. Eventually, Sabina and Tereza silently confront each other in one of the most maddeningly tantalizing scenes to come out of the ’80s. It’s undeniable that Tomas and Tereza are in love, and the sacrifices each makes for the other force us to confront our own perceptions of love and sex.
Unbearable is based on Milan Kundera’s novel of the same name. Kundera challenges the Nietzsche idea of eternal return (everything that we experience has already been experienced and will continue to be) with an alternate notion: each of us only has one life, and what happens once will never happen again. Kundera theorizes that individual decisions are virtually meaningless, therefore can do no harm. He calls eternal return a weight, a solid irreparable mass. In contrast, the “absolute absence of burden” is lightness. With Tomas as his instrument, Kundera plays out this wretchedly esoteric idea- what is one person’s lightness is another’s weight, thus, an Unbearable Lightness of Being.
When it was first released, Unbearable was criticized by some as dirty movie about sex. True, there’s a lot of sex in the film, portrayed frankly and complexly. But even though Unbearable is often thought of as a sexy love story that uses the Cold War as a backdrop, it could just as easily be an account of a critical political moment told under the guise of romance. Although the film adaptation of the novel omits a good chunk of the political narrative, the use of archived footage of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague is beautifully edited and well-suited to both Kundera’s anti-Communist sentiment and as the subtext of Tomas and Tereza.
As someone who loves the writing of Milan Kundera (seriously, have you ever read a line more poetic than “in the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine”?), I found it difficult at times to watch the movie without filling in some gaps. Much of the novel’s internal dialogue is diminished, which sometimes left me feeling like the characters were misconstrued. But even without the novel as a reference, Kaufman has created a stunning movie that deserves (and fastens) our attention for every minute of its three hours.