Friday, August 29, 2008

Making the political personal: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Warner Brothers, 1988
Screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman
Based on the novel by Milan Kundera
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Derek de Lint

"When Oedipus realized that he had killed his father -- unknowingly, unknowingly killed his father -- and was sleeping with his mother, and that because of his crimes plagues were ravaging his city, he couldn't bear the sight of what he'd done. He plucked out his own eyes and left. He did not feel innocent. He felt he had to punish himself. But our leaders, unlike Oedipus, they felt they were innocent. And when the atrocities of the Stalinist period became known, they cried, 'We didn't know! We weren't aware of what was going on. Our conscience is clear. ' But the important difference is... they stayed in power. And they should have plucked their eyes out. All I'm saying is that morality has changed since Oedipus." -- Tomas, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

There is a sense of beauty about Kaufman’s film that distils moments from Kundera’s work into sheer cinematic elegance, in a progression of unforgettable scenes such as the one where Teresa (Juliette Binoche) and Sabina (Lena Olin) photograph each other in the nude, and the ethereal closing moments of the film. From a lengthy and somewhat directionless sixty minutes at the beginning that do not do much but detail Tomas’ (Daniel Day-Lewis) womanizing, the film reaches into a violently political space with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, but this is not a film in which the personal becomes political. Rather, it is the political that is personalized at every step, with the director never losing track of the private and shared spaces inhabited by his characters.

The talented star cast leaves nothing to be desired, and Lena Olin stands out especially as the charismatic Sabina, who lights up the screen every time she’s on it, particularly in her scenes with Day-Lewis. Daniel Day-Lewis does an inimitable job of making the audience feel for a philandering cad. While the screenplay remains largely faithful to the book, I would have liked to see Tomas’ ‘rule of threes’ and Sabina’s thoughts about being in a grave included in the script. Derek de Lint does the needful as Franz. Stellan Skarsgård (more recently known to audiences as ‘Bootstrap’ Bill Turner in the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) has a brief but memorable role as The Engineer, whose encounter with Teresa makes her excruciatingly aware of how ‘ugly’ Prague has become after the invasion. The scene where the invasion is introduced is wonderfully evocative, as Teresa, tortured by Tomas’ infidelities, leaves the house at night only to find a tank rumbling up the street. Kaufman seems to have missed out on the canine Karenin’s sexual ambiguity (as portrayed in the book), but that is a forgivable oversight in the light of how the dog and his/her friend Mephisto the pig are showcased in the film!

Teresa’s photography and Sabina’s art are two of the most potent channels through which the film represents the signs of the times. Ironically, the magazine editor in Geneva can only see “provocative poses” in the photographs of the invasion that Teresa has taken at risk to her life, and encourages her to photograph cactuses rather than tanks. It is Teresa whose experiences reveal one way of understanding the enigmatic title, as she tires of her husband’s numerous affairs with other women and flees back to Prague from the relative safety of Switzerland: “Life is very heavy to me, and it is so light to you. I can't bear this lightness, this freedom... I'm going back to the country of the weak.”

Juliette Binoche looks terribly young and vulnerable, and has wonderful chemistry with Day-Lewis, and even more so with Olin. Binoche and Olin co-star in Chocolat (2000) as well.

Tomas: I must go.
Sabina: Don't you ever spend the night at the woman's place?
Tomas: Never.
Sabina: What about when the woman's at your place?
Tomas: I tell her I have insomnia. Anything. Besides, I have a very narrow bed.
Sabina: Are you afraid of women, Doctor?
Tomas: Of course.
Sabina: I really like you, Tomas. You are the complete opposite of kitsch. In the kingdom of kitsch, you would be a monster.


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