Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

The power of the final moments of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, Philip Kaufman's 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera's novel, comes from a sublime bit of editing. Describing what happens would give too much away, but in three short scenes, this otherwise linear film unexpectedly slips loose from time, portraying a joyous moment, a tragic revelation, and then a long, slow scene that holds both in the balance, letting viewers tip the scale in whichever direction their hearts incline. It's an effect that could only happen in cinema, and it's made all the more stunning by its appearance in a film taken from a by-all-logic-unfilmable book.

A novel about sex, politics, and the shifting meaning of freedom, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being offsets its action with regular philosophical interludes, most tied to Nietzsche's liberating/terrifying notion of eternal return. (In brief: What if you only lived once, but you live that life over and over again into eternity? Discuss.) But Kaufman gets at the same ideas by digging into Kundera's story of a Czech neurosurgeon (Daniel Day-Lewis) who flits from woman to woman, an artist (Lena Olin) and frequent lover who shares his commitment to remaining noncommittal, and the country girl (Juliette Binoche) who challenges the beliefs of both against the backdrop of the 1968 Prague Spring and its subsequent Soviet crackdown.

In 1988, the film received a lot of attention for its frank sexuality, but its sex scenes aren't as notable for their lustiness (though it's best not to understate how sexy they are) as for how much Kaufman and his actors say with only body language. When Binoche shows up on Day-Lewis' doorstep, he finds her guileless affection makes his usual Don Juan maneuvers obsolete. It's the first of many humiliations, large and small, that he'll meet over the course of the film, the most serious coming in the wake of the Soviet invasion. No one leaves the film unchallenged or unchanged. Other people and the forces of history make sure of that. And whether the outcome is tragic or blissful, it's part of what makes any life, whether lived once or repeated endlessly, worth living at all. No one floats forever.


Key features: A fine commentary track with Kaufman and others ported from the old Criterion edition, and a new by-the-book (but good) making-of doc.

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