BY CHADWICK SCHNEE
Campus Times Staff
Based on Milan Kundera’s “unfilmable” novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” embraces visual imagery and editing techniques in a way few films ever achieve. The film consistently leads the viewer behind the eyes of its characters, while at times letting the images convey and carry the plot.
While the way that the shots are constructed is impressive, the story itself is standard fare – a man dominated by his own sexual desire is torn between faithfulness and promiscuity. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Tomas, a Czechoslovakian neurosurgeon who hums while performing brain surgery and treats sex like football, beguiling his way into the hearts – and beds – of the majority of women in the film. While he favors artist Sabina — played by Lena Olin – Tomas meets photographer Tereza – played by Juliette Binoche – and soon adds her to his list of conquests when she arrives in Prague.
Tereza moves in with Tomas, and soon marries him after he becomes jealous when she dances with another man in a well-orchestrated rhythmic scene in the Golem nightclub. Throughout their marriage, however, Tomas repeatedly betrays his wife, slinking off to Sabina and other women, while Tereza does little but suspect and imagine.
In one particularly innovative scene, Tereza bobs up and down in a swimming pool in a point of view shot that carries the camera above and below the water’s surface. Tereza – and the audience – sees a group of women in swimwear stretching in unison. When the camera floats upward again, however, the women are completely naked, while a man – presumably her husband – appears to examine each one of them. The women repeatedly alternate between clothed and naked in the sequence, giving the viewer a chance to share in Tereza’s suspicions.
Tereza confronts Tomas regarding her suspicions and storms out. Immediately after she leaves, Tomas stops her as a Soviet tank rolls down the alleyway, interrupting Communist leader Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face,” known as “Prague Spring,” a period in Czechoslovakian history when there was an increased focus on human rights.
In the film, the invasion sequence begins with a striking shot of the bright light of the tank’s searchlight shining around the frame, while the camera tilts slightly and the color fades to black and white as the tank rolls closer. During the invasion, director and co-writer Phillip Kaufman mixes his footage with archival shots from 1968, giving the film a realistic and gritty quality that flows well with the rest of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
Tomas, Sabina and Tereza flee to Switzerland, where Sabina soon becomes involved with another man before Tomas arrives in the country. Tereza, entirely dependent on her husband as a result of not being able to interest a magazine in anything but “pictures of naked ladies,” returns to Prague. She is unable to share in Tomas’ “lightness” – his insensitive and “strong” nature.
In the end, Tomas returns to Prague because of Tereza, and eventually moves out to the country with her to escape the oppression of the Communist party. Tomas and Tereza eventually achieve happiness with each other, dancing together in one of the film’s closing shots.
The characters themselves drive the occasionally wandering narrative for the three hours of the film, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The simple imperfections and nuances of the lead characters give “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” its mesmerizing, almost hypnotic quality.
It achieves this through cinematography, as well. It should also be noted that Sven Nykvist – cinematographer for Bergman’s “Faith Trilogy” and, more recently, “Celebrity” – composes some awe-inspiring, intricate shots throughout the entire film.
The film is worth seeing for its cinematography alone.
The problem with “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is that Kaufman tries to do too much in the film both in terms of the story and his characters, leaving the audience jumping from one plot point to the next.
While the film occasionally focuses more on editing techniques and style than it does on the plot, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” successfully engages the viewer with some of its more analytical shot construction.
Director and co-writer Phillip Kaufman will introduce the film on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the George Eastman House. After the screening, Kaufman will answer questions and receive the title of George Eastman Honorary Scholar. Tickets are $6 for students.
Schnee can be reached at email@example.com.