Bearing up

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

San Francisco filmmaker Philip Kaufman is one of the few American directors who combines a maturely literary sensibility with a sound understanding of how the film medium works. His most successful movies play to that pair of strengths, adventurously. In 1988, after having made a magnificent film of Tom Wolfe’s allegedly unfilmable nonfiction tome The Right Stuff, Kaufman turned to a magnificent film of Milan Kundera’s allegedly unfilmable novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Looking again at the latter now, it’s easy to wonder: How could it not have been filmed, and in just this way?

A buoyant Daniel Day-Lewis plays Tomas, the Czech libertine choosing between sexual liberty and provincial love—as embodied by Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche, respectively—in a politically deadening era. It’s a story about lovemaking as subversion of totalitarian oppression, and to transpose it from page to screen requires not only the right tools, but also the skills to handle them safely. The filmmaker stays alert to the prospects. For one thing, as he rhetorically but rightly observes in his commentary, “What could be more visual than Juliette Binoche’s face?” Amen. For another, there’s editor Walter Murch’s brilliantly cinematic assemblage of real footage from the military halt to Prague Spring, described by Kaufman as a “variant of what we had here in San Francisco called the Summer of Love … [though] the Russians really didn’t see it that way.” That the world has changed so sharply since then, and again since this film’s theatrical release, only enhances its poignant, affirming sensuality.

Upping the ante on the Criterion edition, this special Warner Bros. release on two discs (to maximize resolution) includes an affable if nonessential new making-of featurette. The truth is that any reissue is reason enough to curl up with the film again.