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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

* * * *

Director: Philip Kaufman
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin

"In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make. That is why Nietzsche called the idea of eternal return the heaviest of burdens… the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant."
- Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”

Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a surgeon living in Prague who has subscribed himself to a life of lightness, of accepting that nothing he does matters, that no thought or action has any real meaning. He carries on with various women, one of whom is Sabine (Lena Olin), an artist with whom he shares particular passion. One day he’s sent to a spa to perform an operation and meets Teresa (Juliette Binoche). Teresa follows him back to Prague and begins living with him, suddenly introducing a heaviness to his life by her need to ascribe meaning to everything. He continues to see other women, including Sabine, but eventually marries Teresa. When the tentative cultural and social freedom of Prague Spring comes to an end with the Soviet occupation, Sabine, Tomas and Teresa flee to Switzerland. For Teresa, life in Geneva is unbearable – she lacks the spiritual lightness that allows Tomas and Sabine to float above the troubles of the world – and she returns to Prague. Eventually, Tomas follows her.

Once back in Czechoslovakia, neither can leave again because the Russians confiscate their passports. Tomas, a respected brain surgeon, is unable to practice medicine due to his refusal to sign a declaration retracting an article he had written before the occupation, calling out the corruption of the Communist regime. He becomes a window washer, he continues to womanize – in spite of everything, his philosophy has remained intact. Teresa, on the other hand, continues to be heavy, too affected by all that goes on around her.

I find that the problem with many “historical” films is that the filmmakers are often less interested in their characters than they are in a particular event from history. The result of this is that the protagonist becomes a thinly developed means of exploring an event, which in turn depletes the resonance of that event because to care about it you have to care about and identify with the character through whose eyes you’re seeing it. This film gets it right, emphasizing the characters over the plot and allowing the characters to be slowly and fully developed, rather than just setting them up and tossing them into political turmoil and upheaval. It also helps that the three principles are played by three really great actors, each at the top of their game.

Since Tomas exists so far above everything that’s going on, much of the tumult is expressed through Teresa, who feels everything so deeply. She’s a photographer who goes to great lengths to capture the Soviet invasion only to get some of those photos to Geneva and be told that the invasion is yesterday’s news – it doesn’t matter, which Tomas knows and accepts because he can accept that nothing matters, but which Teresa can’t bear. The great conflict between the two – aside from the obvious monogamy issue – is that he can just allow everything to roll off his back while those same things pierce her to the very core.

There’s a great deal of eroticism in this film – between Tomas and Sabine, Tomas and Teresa, and between Teresa and Sabine – all of it carefully constructed and skilfully carried out. Generally speaking, there’s a lot of sex in movies but so little genuine eroticism that it almost seems strange when seen here. It’s a sexy movie in a way that you don’t often see, in that it explores sex and sexuality in a serious way, weaving it into the philosophical themes of the story, rather than just tossing in a few sex scenes simply for the sake of having some nudity like so many other movies do. It’s one of the many facets of the film that raises it above and beyond many others.

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