The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 51 min.

Release Date: February 5th, 1988 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Philip Kaufman Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Derek de Lint, Erland Josephson, Pavel Landovsky, Donald Moffat, Stellan Skarsgard




n Prague in 1968, a young doctor named Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) demonstrates an exquisite proficiency with the ladies – exemplified by chirpy musical interludes, intertitles, and a general gaiety that feels very comparable to “Tom Jones.” His main squeeze – and the woman who knows him best – is Sabina (Lena Olin), whose bed he often shares. Even before the credits finish rolling, Tomas is sent to a nearby spa to perform a surgery, where he can’t help but to spy additional women, perhaps in need of a liaison. He’s an undeniable playboy and a shrewd lothario too. “Are you only searching for pleasure?”

While at the spa, Tomas notices pretty Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a cafe employee – yet another prime candidate for seduction. After her shift ends, she joins him on a park bench, but he decides to return to Prague in a timely fashion, departing without acting upon his desires. This, of course, leaves him to ponder and wonder about the curious beauty. But he doesn’t have long to wait; at what seems like that very evening, Tereza arrives in town from a hasty train ride to knock on his door (it’s never explained how she knew where to find him). “Take off your clothes.”

Boisterous, destructive sexual games also remind of that aforementioned 1963 Best Picture Oscar winner, along with Tomas’ odyssey-like voyage through new places, with new women to explore. And he must orchestrate a careful juggling act, though it’s inevitable that his various partners will find out. In fact, he’s open about Tereza’s arrival with Sabina, going so far as to ask his older paramour to take his younger one under her wing. There’s certainly a sexual liberation existing in their relationship, even if one or all of them will eventually get hurt by these unconventional unions – and the sudden transition to a traditional marriage.

The film also boasts a tremendous amount of sex and nudity – sequences conducted under the unhurried, precise lens of director Philip Kaufman. This casualness, which lingers on all sorts of minute details, carries over to virtually every scene, resulting in both an intimate familiarity with the cast and settings and a whopping running time. Due to the length alone, there’s something of an epic feel to this lighthearted romance, particularly as major historical events arise, and partly because this picture also focuses on Sabina’s story, which moves to a different location for a secondary yarn.

Political unrest in regards to a potent Russian presence in Czechoslovakia serves as an undercurrent to the increasing jealousy that threatens to tear Tomas and Tereza apart. It surfaces, however, on several occasions, designed artistically to appear as archival footage (in black-and-white or low-contrast colors) involving tanks and attacks on civilians and people fleeing to Switzerland to escape the violent tensions. It’s not long before the two lovers are right in the midst of strikes and protests and danger, visible in documentary-styled clips mirroring real events. It further begins to take on a few dour Tolstoy references from the start, mixing with tragic newspaper headlines and screechy, nerve-rattling violins.

Blending historical notes with fictional romance, like “Doctor Zhivago” and “Cabaret,” the subject shifts from Tomas’ philandering ways to Tereza’s fulfillment as a photographer. Yet there’s a distinct dissatisfaction with all of these characters (including Derek de Lint as Franz, a university professor), since they’re either notably naive, upsettingly unfaithful, or downright deceptive. There’s not much of a moral compass in the world of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Perhaps this works better with the provocative cinematography (reflections are used to a substantial degree) and continual eroticism, but it tends to decrease the potency of the romance – much in the same way that the controversial sexuality of “Last Tango in Paris” overstepped its genuinely romantic qualities.

Nevertheless, the picture arranges several poignant reunions that effectively tug on the heartstrings. And the notion of stifled freedoms, of persecuted rights, of suppressed beliefs and principles, are staggering topics for a theatrical adventure, along with the deterioration of society and careers under the Communist regime. Can love survive the horrors of postwar conflicts? Can what Tomas and Tereza have be defined as love at all? It certainly helps that the actors are in top form, remaining authentic to their roles throughout, convincing predominantly through expressions and actions, since the dialogue is unusually minimal. And the crushing, sensational finale ultimately solidifies this very adult drama as something more than a trivial statement about happiness amid political and societal anxieties. There’s a lot of beauty to be found in the almost random, unfocused imagery and atmosphere.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10