John Grabowski | USA | 01/31/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Now this is a movie!
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this film is that an American directed it. It feels so European, and not faux-European--it needs to be done this way. Or perhaps it's really not so surprising, on second thought. I've long observed how European or Europe-born directors make the best American films (Louis Malle with Atlantic City, Roman Polanski with Chinatown, even Paul Mazursky with Moscow on the Hudson), so why not the reverse?
At any rate, after making a somewhat cynical American movie (The Right Stuff), Kaufman reinvented himself as his exact polar opposite, directing this relatively innocent film about the "Prague Spring" and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I say "innocent" even though the film is best remembered (in Puritan America at least) for the explicit sex scenes that, to me, are not shocking and are not even the first thing (or second, or third) to come to mind when I think of this marvelous film. Instead I remember Sabina's hat, the quiet moments between her and Tomas, and the feeling pervading the film that life is fleeting, happiness elusive, and life-altering changes lurk around every corner. Instead I marvel at how the film manages to *suggest* the existential novel it came from, even though Kaufman chose not to try to adapt the huge existential portions of Kundera's book. This is a movie about time and place, and indentity, or lack of it; about commitment, about how heavy life seems or doesn't seem dependant upon the government you are stuck with. This is a movie about freedom, who can handle it, and who can't. This is a movie about courage, who has it and who doesn't, and I don't mean just the people who stood up on the tanks. Recall that the young and very verbal doctor who was most enthusiastic about Tomas publishing his article is quickest to turn tail and embrace the communists after the invasion.
Most of all this is a movie that realizes you don't have to have a linear plot to create great film--on the contrary, film embraces such nonlinear story-telling. At the same time, Kaufman never feels compelled to venture into surrealism or symbolism. (He did consider it for the ending, as he reveals on the commentary track.) For some reason all this, and a genuine ignorance of Czech culture and history, has made this film a little tough for many American critics and viewers to swallow. They give it polite, superficial praise, but reading between the lines we get the feeling some of them are saying "What's it *really* about, beyond great sex?"
Both Daniel Day Lewis and Lena Olin are excellent, and of course Olin's performance has received much attention and commentary because of her high-octane sex scenes (though comparisons to Last Tango seem wrong to me; LT was very cynical in is treatment of male-female relationships, whereas what makes this film work so well is the fact that it's rather innocent in that way). But the real standout--one of the greatest performances I've ever seen on a movie screen--belongs to Juliette Binoche. Her Tereza is attractive but gawky, poised by awkward, shy yet take-charge when it's needed. She is meek around Tomas yet grabs her camera and runs fearlessly into danger when the Russians invade. Binoche's performance is so astonishing we can reconcile these contradictions and in fact don't even question them. That she was never Oscar-nominated is astonishing. (This film received a grand total of two nominations and no awards--proof, if it was needed, that the Academy is retarded, considering such second-rate films as The Accidental Tourist and Rain Man took home big trophies.)
Criterion's DVD is very fine, though a little short on extras. (Not even a trailer!) There are, however, fascinating commentaries by Kaufman, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, Lena Olin and others. I would have liked a "Making of" featurette too, but that's because I'm greedy. The picture is dark and solid as you'd expect from cinematographer Sven Nykvist, although on a large-screen TV you see more scratches and dust than maybe should be in such an important release. The sound very good if not THX-caliber, but this film doesn't need it.
Yet another film on my favorites list that no one would dare make today. Recently this has been reissued on a double-DVD set. I haven't seen the new incarnation, but I understand from reviews the movie is *split over two discs.* While the film is longish, it can fit on one disc, as it does here. Also, the new documentary apparently contains comments from mostly the same people who are on the commentary track, so the material largely duplicates said track. Also the commentary track on the new edition is reportedly exactly the same as this Criterion edition. Given all that, I see no compelling reason to buy the new version, but I do wish someone would put out a definitive and richly detailed DVD of ULoB (how about some commentary from author Kundera?) someday."
Exquisite Film Was One of The 1980's Best
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Phillip Kaufman reached an artistic pinnacle with this elegant translation of Milan Kundera's book about the 1968 Czechoslovokian crisis. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Tomas, a physician, whose life consists in seducing women, one of whom - an artist Sabina (Lena Olin) - is his sexual and spiritual soulmate. Into his life comes another woman, Terezina, (Juliette Binoche) who demands more of a committment to her than he will permit to any woman including Sabina. His crisis between the carefree artist and the more demanding Terezina mirrors the crisis of Czechoslovokia between the "liberation" of the Prague Spring and the Soviet repression of August 1968 although neither Kauffman nor Kundera crudely makes Sabina represent the one nor Terezina the other. Although these characters may lead apparently amoral lives, the film and novel are all about the moral consequences of their choices. Many American critics, similar to the one who provided the first customer review, feel that Kaufmann has simply made a piece of arty Euro-lite soft-core: intellectual and opaque enough to appeal to the high-brow crowd yet tittliating enough to strike at their lowbrow desires. While I'll concede that this judgement applies well to his follow-up film "Henry and June" (1990), it's grossly unfair to characterize this film as such. The narrative and themes are presented clearly, the cinematography is gorgeous but never in an overly-arty way like in "Henry and June", and his whirling direction keeps this film moving along at an effervescent 172 minutes. The actors - especially Day-Lewis and Olin - do phenomenal work and contribute mightily to bring Kaufmann's evocation of late 1960's Europe to life. In a strange way, the film compliments the book rather than adapts it and stands on its own as a fully realized cinematic work. People conditioned to see sex on the screen as a smutty joke or leading to painful reprecussions had problems with Kaufmann's playful sensuality here. He compounded their discomfort by coating all these goings-on with a veneer of class, larding the film with literary references and putting Janacek on the soundtrack. And it was easy to dismiss the film as nothing but a bunch of amoral European sophisicates who make love in between bouts of literary discussions or fighting political repression. But the film pulls us into these character's lives in a much more impassioned and alive way than European art cinema does with its deliberate distancing effects and pretentious moralizing (good recent example: Lars Von Trier's interminable "Breaking The Waves"). The film weaves its larger concerns about freedom and responsibility seamlessly through the narration - we can follow the film without knowing all the allusions and references. Some may see the characters and their bed-hopping as shallow and affected but they are forced to deal with their country's politics and history and have to come to terms with their own lives in ways that Euro-fluff soft-core comedies like "French Twist" never have to. Indeed, the moral choices placed on these apparently frivolous characters gives the film its greatness. In other words, "Unbearable Lightness" has a sophisticated air because it is sophisticated: in its ideas, direction, writing, and acting. Kaufmann's work since has generally disappointed but here he's made one of the richest and intelligent films of the decade."
This movie is not about love and desire !
Bulent Erolur | Istanbul, Turkey | 02/25/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I was deeply disappointed when i went through several viewer reviews. This movie is not about love and desire and etc as was commonly stated in most of the reviews. It is about BEING, EXISTANCE,CHOICES AND COINCIDENCES. This movie is based entirely upon the statement 'Einmal ist Keinmal'. The 'unbearable lightness of being' refers to the one and only one single opportunity of a human being to make choices and bear the consequences, since it is not possible to turn back the clock and make a different choice and see the consequences. It is also discussed in the movie, that it is coincidences that guide our lives rather than our evaluations of the situations and our actions(decisions) taken upon our evaluations.This movie is the best movie i have seen in my whole life, therefore i could not keep silent against the fact that this marvellous piece of work has been misinterpreted by many and hence has been enjoyed to an extent far less than possible.If you havent seen it yet...."
Unbearable lightness - frivolity in the face of revolution
Philip Brubaker | 07/24/2000
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I feel i should write something because the previous review is very misleading and spiteful. I always find it bizarre when people write a review of a film and say "nothing much happened". Well, did you watch the film? A lot happened! The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia for one thing! The previous reviewer calls the movie self-important. It is no more self-important than the review you wrote, sir. And if it is, I think that tends to happen naturally when a conglomeration of hugely talented filmmakers tackle epic material; it is gorgeously lensed by the greatest cinematographer of all time Sven Nykvist, the performances are peerless, the script is utterly compelling at all times, and the direction proved Kaufman to be a master. I don't find the film pretentious because i found the story so involving. I was watching characters not dry literary symbols. I personally believe something is pretentious only if you dont understand it. As for the cactus being a phallic symbol, it looks a phallus, so what? Whats your point? As for the title, my mother, who is Slavic and was living in Poland during the 1968 invasion, agrees that Teresa explains it best in the film: she can't bear to be light and frivolous while her people are being oppressed. I have seen few films that display the heart and warmth of this one. It is just as timely and compelling today as it was twelve years ago. The Criterion DVD has beautiful high resolution imagery and a great Janacek soundtrack. The commentary track is also enlightening to hear, as several key people involved in making the film speak candidly about what they were doing."