The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kaufman, 1988)

“Sigh”,  this movie……….encapsulates souls at play, at battle, in life.  I’m lost inside a 1968 Czech city struggling to emerge from Soviet hegemony.  I’m lost in the life and death of the characters who spend close to 3 hours exploring the human condition and quest for freedom, love, and meaning in life.

The book by Milan Kundera, which the film is based on,  is written as a linear narrative edited between chapters which explore the philosophical concept of lightness.    The existentialists believe that weight is life-affirming.  To have weight to one’s life is to be content.  Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Return grants a human life purpose and weight.  Eternal Return dictates that existence is a continuous circle, everything is fixed and reoccurring.  This permits us to buy into a notion that life is not fleeting but has a purpose.  This reduces the burden of living and the anxiety of living a meaningless life, for every life is needed to complete the infinite cycle.  Kundera chooses to explore Lightness through his story of Tomas, Tereza and Sabina.  In lightness there are no rules, no duty, no moral obligation.  However, in lightness, life is a one time occurrence, not to be repeated, finite.  There is no meaning to it.   It doesn’t matter if you’ve lived a good life or a miserable one because there is nothing more and that is what makes it unbearable. Kundera forces us to ask ourselves, would we choose lightness or weight?   These ideas are not new but have haunted thinkers always.  The Greeks and Buddhists pondered the idea long before Kundera.  Yet, Milan Kundera presents the ideas to us like a budding rose, bursting from a thorny drab stem.

The balance of weight and lightness are keenly felt when Tomas gazes upon Tereza for the first time.  The pool is peaceful, men are playing chess intent on their game and abiding by the laws and codes it encompasses.  Suddenly, there is a crash as a body breaks the calm surfaces and disrupts the pieces on the board.  We see Tomas transfer his glance to this wild creature in the pool.  When we cut to Tereza, she is gliding under the water with such grace and lightness, unaware of the rupture she has caused above the surface.  We cut back to the men fighting over where the chess piece belongs.  The lightness and freedom which Tereza has carried into the pool has caused a ripple in the purpose and meaning of the chess game.    For me, Tereza seems to embody both concepts, although many will say she is the character tied to weight where as, Tomas and Sabina are fighting for freedom and lightness.   Both Tereza and Tomas begin as polar opposites but move closer to each others’ weight/weightlessness as the film progresses.  Another scene which translates the book’s concept of weight (duty, morality, code of conduct) with lightness (freedom, lawless) is the wedding scene in which the farmer’s pig runs through the ceremony wearing a bow-tie.  The lightness of this moment breaks with the weight of the impending marriage and all that comes with it, responsibility, faithfulness, respect.  This contrast is illustrated with the preacher’s objections to the pig disturbing such a serious moment.

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Philip Kaufman brought to film a book that most thought could not translate to the medium.   He wrote the screenplay with Jean-Claude Carriére which surprised me.  Much like the Story of O which was written anonymously, the theory was it was written by a women because of feminine details found throughout the book.   The same is true for this screenplay.  The details in the film are soft and female.  The moment Sabina and Tereza meet, their gaze and exclusion of Tomas from their new secret union is written by someone with intimate knowledge of women’s thoughts, fears, manipulations and strengths.  The missing sock scene and its reappearance in plain view later is another purely feminine moment.   The quiet moments in this film, the pauses, are sometimes stronger than the lines.  The acting is outstanding.  The casting of Tereza (Juliette Binoche) with her alabaster skin and softly stained cheeks along with Sabina, (Lena Olin) her dark eyes, full lips and almost male independence, could not be improved upon.   When they are on screen together, Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into the background (if that is possible).

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I’m not troubled that Tereza, Tomas and Karenina leave us.  They’ll never age.  They are frozen, perfect. If you believe in the Eternal Return they will be back.  They have wandered through the dark forest lost, finally finding the light and true freedom.  I can’t imagine them anywhere else.  Sabina, left to live a long life of lightness, seems the tragic one in this film.

This will not be my only exploration of this film, there is too much to say.  After all,  I named a dog after Kundera!   I really love this film.

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