Wednesday, August 23, 2023

“Take Off Your Clothes”: Filmmakers Grapple With “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the masterwork of Czech novelist Mila Kundera, whom we lost this past July. Published in 1984, it is a complex philosophical blending of a love story and a chronicle of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet troops in 1968. In 1988 the novel became an award-winning film, featuring an international cast and crew. Kundera himself at first took part in the filmmaking process, but later insisted that the movie adaptation bore no resemblance to his novel, and refused to permit further adaptations of his oeuvre.

 It was Czech expatriate filmmaker Milos Forman who saw the possibilities of bringing Kundera’s work to the screen. But with the Soviet Union then still in control of his homeland, Forman didn’t dare involve himself personally, for fear of causing harm to his relatives back home. That’s why he brought this project to producer Saul Zaentz and writer/director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff), working through Orion Pictures. The cast was led by three European actors headed for stellar careers. Daniel Day-Lewis, who’d had modest but showy roles in British films like My Beautiful Laundrette and A Room With a View (both 1985), was chosen to play Tomas, a renowned young surgeon. This character, committed to sexual adventures with a wide range of available young women, stands at the very center of the drama. The two most important females in his life, the idealistic Tereza and the boldly cynical Sabina, were played by a very young Juliette Binoche (then age 23) and a sleek, sexy Lena Olin. For both of them, the cavalier European approach to on-screen nudity is very much in evidence.

 Some parts of the film (notably Tomas’s sly advance to a sexy nurse in the opening moments) are notably funny. But there’s no humor to be found when Russian tanks roll into the nation’s capital to end the vaunted Prague Spring of 1968. This is the section in which Kaufman’s filmmaking is at its most remarkable. We see Binoche’s Tereza, a serious amateur photographer, snapping close-up photos of the violence in the streets of her city, then entrusting the precious rolls of film to travelers leaving Czechoslovakia. This is a reflection of what really happened: many hours of such you-are-there documentary footage—both stills and home movies—ended up scattered throughout Europe and America, carried by tourists and expats. The filmmakers gathered up what they could find, then carefully interspersed it with scenes showing Kundera’s characters in the midst of the action. The result (even though the film was shot on location in Lyon, France) is a close-to-accurate vision of what happened in 1968 Prague. (Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s favorite cinematographer, was Oscar-nominated for his work, as were the authors of the film’s screenplay.)

 But The Unbearable Lightness of Being is as much about love as it is about politics. For the film version, those in control decided it would be best to focus on the central romantic story. This is the tender but somewhat unlikely marriage of the shy and self-conscious Tereza and the cheerfully philandering Tomas, a relationship in which their much-loved pet dog plays an important role. Their desperate jaunts in and out of Prague dominate the later parts of the film ending with a retreat into the pristine countryside and a moment—how brief a moment!—of quiet joy. It’s hard to say that this three-hour movie hangs together, or that it captures in full the novel’s philosophical complexity, but still it’s a worthy introduction to a world-class author’s most admired work.


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