Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Originally Written and Posted at on 10/20/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Based on the novel by Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the story of a Czech surgeon who deals with two relationships involving an innocent photographer and an artist as they both represent different ideas of what he wants. Directed by Philip Kaufuman and screenplay by Kaufman, Jean-Claude Carriere, and Saul Zaentz, the film is an exploration into a love triangle that occurs during the 1960s where they also endure political and social changes in the former Czechoslovakia. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Derek de Lint, Donald Moffat, Pavel Landovsky, Erland Josephson, and Stellan Skarsgard. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a harrowing yet mesmerizing film from Philip Kaufman.

It's 1968 in Prague, Czechoslovakia as a surgeon named Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) spends his life flirting and sleeping with other woman including a nurse named Katja (Pascale Kalensky). Tomas also has a mistress named Sabina (Lena Olin) who works as an artist as she is the only real friend he has and understands him better than anyone. Then one day as Tomas goes to a country spa town to perform surgery, he catches the eye of a waitress named Tereza (Juliette Binoche) who shares his love for books and such. She had dreamed of going to Prague to make it as a photographer as she joins him. Knowing that Sabina has connections with the art world, she manages to give Tereza a job working for the press which she was happy though she noticed the chemistry between Sabina and Tomas. Thanks to Sabina, Tereza's work as a photographer makes her a success as they go to a party where Tereza makes Tomas jealous when he dances with his colleague Jiri (Tomek Bork) while making speeches about morality and insults towards the Russian politicians. During that night, they're at a club with the politicians where one of them told the band to play the Russian anthem that then becomes a rock n' roll number.

When Tomas writes an article to the press about the Russians, it unfortunately attracted the attention of the Russians. Despite just being married to Tereza, Tereza's knowledge of Tomas' love of sex and women makes her insecure as she tries to walk out only to catch a glimpse of the Russian tanks arriving.The Russian invasion in Prague is captured by Tereza’s camera as she sees Sabina leave for Switzerland. The two later join when Tereza has been caught photographing the event, even when she sends film rolls to foreigners. In Switzerland, Sabina caught the attention of a university professor named Franz (Derek de Lint). The two fall in love as they have their own affair that is great except for the fact that he's married. Tomas and Tereza arrive as Tomas gets a new job though Tereza finds that her love of photography is being stifled by having to do nude photographs for money and attention.  She contacts Sabina for some nude photography and vice versa as for a moment, they briefly bonded until Franz's arrival to tell Sabina the news that he's leaving his wife. Sabina, unsure of wanting a relationship with Franz since she also adores Tomas and Tereza, chose to leave Switzerland and Franz. Tereza also leaves the country to return to Prague with their dog Karenin as Tomas realizes he needs her as he returns to Czechoslovakia but with his passport now confiscated. 

Now in a new Czechoslovakia, Tomas tries to get his old job but his boss (Donald Moffat) told him that he couldn't unless he sign documents over the article he wrote. After an Interior Ministry official (Daniel Olbrychski) tries to get him to sign, Tomas ends up cleaning windows for a living while Tereza becomes a waitress at a bar. Befriending an engineer (Stellan Skarsgard), Tereza finds herself increasingly insecure with Tomas returning to old habits with women. In response, she meets with the engineer but suspects something is wrong. Turning to a former ambassador (Erland Josephson) about what had happened, Tereza's guilt forces she and Tomas to leave Prague for good to live in the country with their friend Pavel (Pavel Landovsky) his pig Mephisto, and his nephew (Pavel Slaby). It is there Tomas is forced to confront his demons, his life with Tereza, and his old affairs with Sabina.

While it's obvious that Kaufman, co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, and producer Saul Zaentz made some changes from the book in their adaptation to add eroticism to the story. The result is a fascinating drama about a doctor whose life and love for two women collide with his own reality in the backdrop of the Russian invasion in 1968. The film is really about a love triangle where all three characters love each other yet have troubling sharing one another. It's also the heart of film and story where they all have trouble sharing each other yet one when two bonds with one forced to watch, there's a sense of jealousy and confusion. It's the characters of Tomas, Tereza, and Sabina that drive the story.

The script by Kaufman and Carriere works in its structure and how the relationships are perceived. The first act is really about Sabina and Tomas with Tereza having to watch while marrying Tomas in a relationship where sex is something mysterious to her. In the second act, there's a scene that's really about Sabina and Tereza and their brief bond. Yet, with Tomas not really aware of what's going on, another observer appears in the form of Franz who doesn't really understand Sabina's role in the love triangle she appears in with Tomas and Tereza. When the third act arrives, Sabina is gone as the film becomes more about the fragile yet tender relationship of Tomas and Tereza and all of their faults. Essentially, the film is about relationships and how fragile they are with each character carrying a different trait.

Tomas is a man filled with charm and bravado who succumbs to habits with women that makes him unfulfilled emotionally. Tereza is a woman who is essentially a woman filled with innocence as she offers love but when it comes to sex, she doesn't really know anything while not wanting to expose herself physically. When she is forced to confront those demons, she becomes confused forcing Tomas to confront his own flaws. Then there's Sabina, she kind of represents the observer of the entire relationship. She’s the only one who understands Tomas' desire for women and Tereza’s insecurities as she tries to help her be confident. Yet, when she is confronted with things like love and security in the form of Franz, it's a world she's not used to since she prefers her own individuality. Therefore, she doesn't appear much in the third act until the end of the film.

Kaufman’s direction is top-notch for its observation and subtle approach towards the film's erotic moments. Whereas nudity is used to titillate or shock the audience, Kaufman does it with emotions where the most erotic moment doesn't have to be a naked woman but rather other body parts like the eyes or what's going on in that scene. In the more politically-driven scenes, the recreation of the invasion isn't shot in Czechoslovakia (due to its political climate at the time) but in France. Yet, the mix of stock footage and real-life footage shot in black-and-white almost made the film documentary-like. While a lot of the film was shot on location in France along with French soundstages and parts of Geneva, Switzerland. The film managed to give that feeling of oppression both physically and psychologically. Credit must go to Kaufman for not overplaying or under-emphasize the drama. Instead, he brings the characters to life and the story itself in what is definitely one of his strongest efforts.

Cinematographer Sven Nykvist brings some gorgeously shot sequences with his mastery craft with wonderful interior shots done with great intimacy. The exteriors are also notable from the lively look of Lyon as Prague in the first act along with the countryside that includes a shot on magic-hour in the third act.  Editor Walter Murch also brings his mastery with his wonderful cutting style that plays like a camera capturing the action. Murch's use of stock footage mixed in with recreated shots of the Russian invasion is also genius to convey the chaos as Murch's work is brilliant.  Production designer Pierre Guffroy definitely creates wonderful interior designs for the film including his recreation of Prague in the soundstages. Featuring paintings by another artist and a look that is very spacious yet intimate in the first half of the film, the look definitely changes to something more claustrophobic until in the later part of the third act where everything's natural. 

Costume designer Ann Roth helps with the film's differing look with the dark clothes that Tomas wears to the exotic lingerie Sabina wears, and the country-like dresses and city-like clothes that Tereza wears. Sound designer Alan Splet does wonderful work with the sound, notably the Russian invasion sequence to bring the layering of sounds from sirens, tanks, and everything that goes on. Music composer Mark Adler brings a soft film score to convey the drama of the Russian Invasion. The rest of the music is flourishing, lyrical piano music by Janacek that soars throughout the entire film.

Then there's the film's cast that is wonderfully superb with small performances from Anne Lonnberg as a Swiss photographer, Clovis Cornillac as a young man who harasses Tereza at a bar, Pascale Kalensky as Nurse Katja, Pavel Slaby as Pavel's nephew, and Bruce Myers as a Czech editor. Other minor performances from Tomek Bork, Daniel Olbrychski, and Erland Josephson as the ambassador are very memorable including Stellan Skarsgard as a shady yet charming engineer and Donald Moffat as the chief surgeon. Pavel Landovsky is excellent as Tomas' friend Pavel, a man who loves his pet pig Mephisto while giving Tomas and Tereza a home late in the film as he muses on the changing times. Derek de Lint is great as a Franz, a university professor who falls for Sabina but isn't sure about her quirks as he doesn't realize what kind of life she leads.

In her first American film, Swedish actress Lena Olin gives a magnificent, sensual performance as Sabina. Though her character is kind of a sexpot of sorts, Olin brings depth to the character as some of her more seductive appearance isn’t what she's not wearing but rather what she's showing. It's a brilliant performance from the actress who is truly a joy to watch. Juliette Binoche is amazing as the more introverted Tereza. Binoche displays an innocence and fragility to the character that is unsure about love and sex while being forced to confront her own failures and her relationship with Tomas. Binoche's performance is very strong and engaging while her scene with Olin with the camera is truly one of the most seductive and jaw-dropping for their emotional responses. Daniel Day-Lewis is in great form as Tomas, a charming, womanizing surgeon who seems to love women more than anything. It's also his downfall yet Day-Lewis brings a lot of wit and a sly face to the character that is a joy to watch. His scenes with Binoche and Olin, whether separate or together, are amazing to watch in how he manages to act with them. Even using a Czech accent, Day-Lewis brings a lot of authenticity to the character while remaining witty in his situations.

The 2006 2-disc, Region 1 DVD from Warner Brothers presents the film with a new, superior transfer that is an improvement over its previous DVD releases including the 1999 Criterion DVD. Presented on widescreen and newly superior sound. The only real negative of the DVD is that due to the remastering and superior film transfer, the three-hour film is split in two. After the first two hours are in the first disc. The film ends in a fade-out with the third hour opening very abruptly. Despite that huge flaw, the film definitely works to its original theatrical presentation. The audio commentary track by director Philip Kaufman, co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, Lena Olin, and Walter Murch is the same commentary from the original 1999 Criterion DVD. While all the tracks are done separately, they're all very informative. Kaufman, who dedicates his commentary to sound designer Alan Splet who died a few years prior, discusses a lot of the film's themes, the difficulty of trying to be faithful to the book while fawning over Juliette Binoche's performance. Jean-Claude Carriere discusses his friendship with Milan Kundera, the themes of the book, and the difficulty of the adaptation.

Olin's commentary is often on many of her scenes as she talks about some of the costumes, her friendship with cinematographer Sven Nykvist and the brief scenes that Erland Josephson had whom she had worked with in a couple of films for Ingmar Bergman. Walter Murch discusses a lot of the film's more technical pointers as he reveals he never goes to a film set during production and some of the editing techniques he did for the film in using two different editing machines before the age of computers. Along with the film's theatrical trailer in the 2nd disc, a 30-minute featurette entitled Emotional History: The Making of The Unbearable Lightness of Being features interviews with Philip Kaufman, Jean-Claude Carriere, Walter Murch, and producer Saul Zaentz. Kaufman talks about discovering the novel in 1984 and turning to Saul Zaentz to make it into a project. Bringing Jean-Claude Carriere to help write the script where they added some more erotic elements to the story with Kundera's permission.

Murch discusses the editing of stock footage intercut with recreated footage shot during production. He would later talk briefly about his friendship with Kaufman whom he knew during the early days of American Zoetrope in the early 70s with founders George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. Zaentz discusses the film's release in 1988 where in the U.S., it did OK despite rave reviews from critics while it was a bigger hit in Europe. Particularly a screening in Russia at the time Communism fell down where Kaufman is convinced the film took a small role in helping end Communism in Eastern Europe.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a phenomenal film from Philip Kaufman that features great performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, and Lena Olin. Armed with a great supporting cast as well as some amazing technical work, the film is truly an intriguing and compelling film about a love triangle that occurred during some intense moments involving events in history. In the end, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is an exquisitely rich and sensational film from Philip Kaufman.

Philip Kaufman Films: (Goldstein) - (Fearless Frank) - (The Great Northfield Raid) - (The White Dawn) - (Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 film)) - (The Wanderers) - (The Right Stuff) - (Henry & June) - (Rising Sun) - (Quills) - (Twisted (2004 film)) - (Hemingway & Gellhorn)

© thevoid99 2015


Ruth said...

Oh I really want to see this one. I hope it's easy to find on iTunes or Amazon. Love Day-Lewis and Binoche!

thevoid99 said...

It is an amazing film though it is rarely shown on TV. I rented it a long time ago. I'm not sure if it's available. I hope you find it because it's a really good film.