Criterion Blogathon – The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This post is part of the Criterion Blogathon hosted by Criterion Blues, Speakeasy, and Sliver Screenings. For my contribution I have chosen the Criterion release The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988, Philip Kaufman).


Literary adaptations often struggle in comparison to their source material. Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and Philip Kaufman’s movie may be less complex than Milan Kundera’s highly praised novel but it succeeds on its own terms.“What were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life? A period that would never return.” Kundera writes and this sense of personal loss is present in the film. The Unbearable Lightness of Being was made by people whose worldview and political affiliations were formed in the 60s’ and it aches with nostalgia for failed revolutions and lost youth.

Kundera’s novel begins with two short chapters reflecting on the contrast between living once or reliving multiple lives with the ability to make choices. “In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.” This theme of lightness and weight continues throughout the novel. Kundera is the narrator and makes no pretence these characters ever existed. They are ciphers representing different approaches to dealing with the uncertainty of life. 


There’s Tomas, a middle-aged surgeon caught up in the political aftermath of the Prague Spring and weighed down by love when he inadvertently finds it. Tereza, the small town girl whose neediness requires an authority figure to submit to. Carriere’s screenplay will omit the details about her background, her horrendous mother and weak father who ends up broken and imprisoned by the authorities. Sabina who runs from any form of commitment, be it romantic or political. Franz, a strong sympathetic Swiss businessman who is drawn to political causes and leaves his wife for Sabina. A key figure in the novel Franz’s role is cut back here and his trip to Cambodia to protest against the War is excised completely. 

Producer Saul Zaentz was well known for taking ambitious novels and adapting them for the screen. Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (86, Peter Weir), Peter Matthiessen’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord (91, Hector Babenco), and Michael Ondjaate’s The English Patient (96, Anthony Minghella), all difficult novels for any screenwriter to approach. Carriere’s screenplay removes the narrator completely and distills events into a linear storyline. Only at the end will the film replicate Kundera’s non-linear storytelling with one character finding something out before the viewer sees it happening onscreen. Tomas is now a younger man (Day-Lewis was 29 at the time of filming), rather than in his late 40′s with a grown-up son he avoids contact with. 


In 1968 Carriere experienced the Prague Spring first hand while working on pre-production for a Milos Forman movie. They had moved on to Paris when the Russian tanks went in to reassert authority. Ironically Forman had studied under Milan Kundera at university and was the author’s choice to adapt The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The Chicago-born Kaufman whose last film was the all-American tale of heroism The Right Stuff (84) about the development of the US’s space program seems a more eclectic choice until you look at his 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which turns the ‘Red Menace’ subtext of the original into a movie about living under occupation. The few survivors can trust no-one, even if they look like or seem to be their friends.. A perfect allegory for life under Russian Communist rule which ruthlessly policed its subjects and demanded conformity.

The opening image is of a closed door, and we hear the laughter of  lovers coming from within like this is the beginning of an erotic film from the 60s or 70s. A series of brief inter-titled scenes setting up the relationships between the three main characters. The carefree hedonistic lifestyle led by Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), his abilities as a surgeon and a lover, his playful sexual relationship with kindred spirit Sabina (Lena Olin), and the moment his pursuit of naive young waitress Tereza (Juliette Binoche) in a country spa are all quickly established. An inter-title which locates events in the past (In Prague there once lived a young doctor named Tomas) also adds a fairytale once upon a time feel to the story aided by composer Leo Janacek’s (who is name-checked in Kundera’s novel) Fairy Tale III. Allegro. Later Tomas will shush Tereza to sleep with an improvised spoken lullaby,

“Like a little song.
A song sung by a forest…
within a forest…
a thousand years ago”

and playfully describe himself as a “monster” while in bed with Sabina. Day-Lewis with his tall angular pre-Last of the Mohicans (92, Michael Mann) frame looks like an Old World vampire hunting for virginal waifs. The charming wolf in the forest little girls are warned about in old folk tales.


The early part of the film has some of the anarchic comedy of Forman’s Czech New Wave era movies. While The Unbearable Lightness of Being was marketed as a highbrow literary adaptation it’s erotic content was also a selling point. Most notably in a striking poster based on the scene above showing Lena Olin wearing black underwear kneeling on a mirror. One of the reasons foreign films did so well during the 60s’ in the UK/US was the possibility of seeing nudity under the guise of intellectualism. In that respect Kaufman’s film echoes that era perfectly. As with Betty Blue (86, Jean-Jacques Beineix), The Unbearable Lightness of Being found a key audience among intellectually curious young people. Far classier and less soft-focus than Nine and a Half Weeks (85, Adrian Lyne) or White Orchid (90, Zalman King) and neither had Mickey Rourke in them.

This voyeurism goes beyond titillation. People observing each other is a key part of the film. Tomas prowls around sharing glances with possible sexual partners. He sees Tereza before she see him, watching her as she dives into a pool disrupting the game of chess a bunch of old guys are playing. She notices Tomas for the first time in the cafe where she works and takes an interest because he is reading a book. A scene that will be replicated later in the film for both of them. After Teresa leaves him in Geneva Tomas notices a pretty waitress who reminds him of his wife. Teresa is befriended by a stranger (Stellan Skarsgaard) who intervenes when a customer turns nasty, though this proves to be a ruse designed to make her complicit in a criminal act. 


Prior to the invasion they observe the previous Communist regime eating in a bar-restaurant and decide they all look like “scoundrels.” Tomas theorises on Oedipus who removed his own eyes out of shame, with the previous regime’s refusal to acknowledge guilt for human rights abuses and writes an article for a political magazine. An act the Russians wilfully misinterpret to remove him from his position in the days after the Prague Spring. Mirrored surfaces, reflections, shots taken through windows recur throughout the film. Sabina is a painter, an aesthete with an interest in art which transcends the ordinary. Tereza develops an interest in photography and she finds her own way of seeing. During the uprising (a mixture of archive footage and new scenes featuring Day-Lewis and Binoche skilfully cut together by the great Walter Murch ) Tereza’s photographs taken to show the world what is happening end up being used as evidence by the Russians to arrest and imprison protestors. They are always watching too, looking for something they can use against people as leverage.

Tomas publishes his article about Oedipus because it amuses him, and refuses to recant on his return to Prague out of pride rather than political principle. “It couldn’t be less important” he tells a KGB official. Although Tereza gets a job at a magazine in Geneva they reject her work and ask her instead to photograph plants and pretty women. She returns to Prague because she finds life in the ‘free’ West meaningless.  Sabina copes by leaving places whenever At heart she is a solitary and Olin captures the contradiction between somebody who needs people for sexual or artistic gratification almost as much as she needs to be free of them afterwards. The weight of political upheaval lies heavily on all three of them despite their attempts to avoid it.


In the novel Kundera describes kitsch as “a folding screen set up to curtain off death.” Something to comfort people by presenting a heightened idealised message even if that story is a tragedy. Essentially the film breaks the novel down into a romantic drama, but it successfully avoids the perils of kitsch. While in the novel the characters feel like extensions of the author’s philosophical beliefs Carriere’s screenplay and the actors make them feel real. There’s genuine emotional heft here which feels earned at the end of its 172 minute running time.


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