I miss Orion almost as much as I miss Phil Kaufman.
The Orion thing is one of those passing thoughts that hits me every time I see the logo in front of something. That’s because I really loved their particular identity as a mini-major in the ’80s. I loved their range, from trash to arthouse, from exploitation to Oscar bait. And I really wish that same spirit still existed today in any exhibitor, but I don’t think it does.
It was a perfect home for a guy like Phil Kaufman, undeniably part of that whole California film school ’70s explosion, the guy who helped create Indiana Jones, who remade the Body Snatchers, and who iconicized (is that a word?) the astronauts. I love Kaufman’s work in general, although I think he was strong out of the gate and then lost some steam with some of the later films. I admit to being mystified by a few choices in his filmography. No matter. The great films he’s made are so great that his place in my personal pantheon is secure. “The Right Stuff” is a film we’ll definitely revisit at some point on this list, but today we’re going to grapple with his adaptation of the “unfilmable” novel by Milan Kundera, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
I love it when a filmmaker decides to shoot a book that has been pronounced “unfilmable.” You learn a lot about the way the filmmaker thinks from the choices they make in rethinking and digesting the material. Kundera’s novel is a really heady, wordy, digressiony brew of biography and polemic and philosophy and intellectual erotica. It’s one of those books that you don’t just casually read. You have to hand some time over to it. You have to immerse yourself in it if you want to get anything from it. It’s a big read that requires your full engagement. So how do you even build a narrative out of something like that?
“In Prague, in 1968, there lived a young doctor named Tomas…”
A shockingly young Daniel Day-Lewis, alone in a room with a hot nurse. His first line, his introduction, sets the tone for the whole film.
“Take off your clothes.” The comic punctuation of the doctor and the patient on the table watching from the other room. The heat and the pleasure of sex underlined by just how funny it all is.
[more after the jump]
“But the woman who understood him best was Sabina…”
Huge scene in terms of thematic groundwork. Sabina and her mirror and her bowler all prominent in the scene, totems of sexual power. Their pillow talk is great stuff. When she purrs, “In the kingdom of kitsch, you would be a monster,” it’s practically a chemical response. Lena Olin is on fire in this film in terms of sexual appeal, the best she’s ever looked in a film.
“Tomas was sent to a spa town to perform an operation…”
And that’s where the OPENING TITLES finally begin over shots of Tomas driving up to the spa town, enjoying himself. Daniel Day-Lewis is Joe Stud behind the wheel of his car, all polished fashion magazine cool. That’s all you need to know, those three quick scenes, and you’re off and running for close to three hours, and I have to say, rewatching it, every minute of it a quiet, sly pleasure, a great film that never once announces itself as such. It’s stealthy. It sneaks up on you. At the end of the film, Kaufman tells you how the story ends before he shows you how the story ends, in essence spoiling it for you, somehow changing a moment of tragedy into a moment of peace. It’s a hell of a move, especially considering how it all starts.
Tomas is a trim magnet. No other way to describe him. It’s like he reads 1968 Playboy and is living that lifestyle to the letter. And it works. Is it any wonder? When you watch him walking through the spa, crammed full of sagging wrinkled doughy naked flesh, he looks like he’s from Mars in his suit and his sunglasses and his perfect hair.
And Juliette Binoche, playing farmgirl Tereza, looks like a glass of whole milk. Sweet and white and taaaaaasty. Tomas sees her as a game to play for an afternoon. Teasing her a bit. Testing to see what he can get from her. He doesn’t close the deal, but he can tell that he’s made an impression when he finally gets in his car and heads back to Prague. To her, he’s a lifeline to a larger world, and she’s drawn to him from the moment they meet.
Tomas is comfortable with the sensual sophistication of Sabina. She’s good for him, good to him. She gets what’s going on with him even if he doesn’t. She respects his rules, including the one that says he never sleeps at the woman’s place and she absolutely never sleeps at his. She even seems to really like those rules. She likes her own freedom.
But when Tereza shows up in Prague, and she throws herself at Tomas, their first sex scene is pretty much the opposite of sophisticated. She’s raw and animal and naive. It’s exuberant sex with her. And the punchline to their first night together, of course, is him waking up next to her. At his place. And worse than that, holding her hand and cuddling, all night long. The very definition of what Tomas does not do.
I like the way Kaufman allows youth culture to start creeping in at the edges of things. It is Prague in ’68, keep in mind. I like the shots of Tereza, waiting for Tomas by the window like a dog, watching the street, hoping for him with each new person turning the corner. I like the subtle ownership games Sabina plays with a sock. And I like how it’s about a half-hour into the movie before we get to the big idea of the film. Tomas finally discusses Tereza with Sabina openly. Admits that she’s moved in, that they are “together.” And Sabina is, understandably, incredulous as he explains his thinking.
“If I had two lives, then in one life, I could ask her to stay with me, and in the other, I could kick her out on the street, and I could see which is best. But we only have this one life.” That’s what Kundera laments more than anything. That we can never know about those other choices, those might-have-beens. Kundera doesn’t write romantic entanglement to titillate. He writes it because that’s where you see those choices dramatized. Who chooses who, and why. The film is ultimately about where Tomas, Tereza, and Sabina all end up on the other side of all these amazing life-changing events. But at the start, it’s just about who is in whose bed and when.
And what begins as this film about a triangle quickly becomes something smarter and richer, as those choices start stacking up. Tomas and Tereza fall into their life together. It’s one impulsive choice after another, but each one seems to have a huge ripple, and real consequence. Tomas is who he is, and Tereza is who she is. They each have radically different expectations, and neither one is going to change. They each want the other to change. They haven’t learned anything at the start about acceptance. They have fights, some worse than others, and one such fight leads to Tereza running out into the street in the middle of the night just in time to feel the rumble of the tanks rolling in for the Russian invasion. And suddenly all the youth culture butting up against the old school Czech leadership, all the tension of the first part of the film, everything in the background, all spills over and there are tanks in the streets. And demonstrations. And riots. And it’s crazy. It’s a very canny mix of documentary footage and stuff shot by Kaufman and the great Sven Nykvist, his cinematographer on the film. He captures the chaos and the horror of the demonstrations as well as the appeal of it, the beauty of the sort of unity that the demonstrators have.
Right there in the middle of all that… Tomas and Tereza. She’s taking pictures. He’s making sure she gets out in one piece.
Sabina leaves town. She makes a choice that takes her completely out of the lives of Tomas and Tereza, or at least so she believes. She knows that Tomas belongs to someone else, that he’s really not going to choose her. We see life as an exile for Sabina, how she settles in. What do you do when you have to leave your country behind?
And is Sabina the life that Tomas didn’t choose? If he’d chosen her, which Sabina would she be? Because she’s defined by her life as the other woman. When she gets set up in Geneva, she falls into the same pattern. It’s what makes her feel wanted.
I find that idea quite provocative in Kundera’s work and in the film… that the source of infidelity is a need to glimpse those roads not taken, the other lives we might have led.
To see this film at 18 and then to see it again at 38, is to realize just how much life experience changes our relationship with art. The sex, the nudity in the film… it’s a totally different experience this time. Erotic, yes, but also revealing in terms of character. The sex scenes are more about everything else that comes with the sex. The emotional bonds, the guilt, the responsibility, the joy, the pain. What we gain from it. What we lose to it.
There’s a powerful scene midway through the film where Tereza and Sabina photograph each other in the nude. It sounds like a Skinemax moment, but because of the investment we have in both of them by that point, it’s this amazing duel of dynamics between the two. Very emotional. And yet, there’s this one shot of Binoche’s eyes, just peeking over the arm of a couch, as Sabina pulls down her underwear exposing her ass. It’s a signature Kaufman moment, pulling a laugh out of a scene that might not otherwise have one. He manages to be sensual and funny at the same time, a mix you don’t always see people try in a film. It’s so real.
You have to make your choices without any second guessing, the film seems to say. Sabina makes on choice in particular I find devastating, a choice that defines who she is and what kind of happiness she’ll allow herself. She likes to run. She likes to be in exile. In the end, she wants to be the other woman. Just as Tereza knows that she can’t live if she’s going to be the other woman.
Tomas can’t continue blithely on with this life of lightness. Especially since Tereza doesn’t find it light at all. She knows he’s constantly unfaithful, and it’s just ruining her. The collision of their philosophies is what leads to every other crossroads in their marriage.
Is there, in fact, strength in surrender?
That’s the miracle of what Kaufman did. Where the book can just ask these questions overtly, the film has to dramatize them, and it does. I feel like the interplay between everyone really does ask some huge things of these characters. Is it important to live outside of ourselves? are the connections we have with other people the things that make us who we are?
WHen Tomas finally gives up his identity as the swinging dick, when he makes a choice that puts Tereza first, he fundamentally alters his relationship with the world. He opens himself to greater pain, to real sorrow. That lightness, so much a part of who he is, cannot last. So does that sorrow or even the possiblity of it, make his joy (or what remains of it) that much sweeter? There’s a kiss about 1:50 into the film that carries so much weight because we know what it means to both of these people, and what it’s cost both of them to get there.
Tomas is not a political man, but eventually, fate makes political men of us all. Circumstance can make any man political. For Tomas, fidelity is a destination, and when he finally arrives, even he seems surprised by it. He seems unable to stop himself, even after making this huge sacrifice, this life-altering choice that transforms him from a valued neurosurgeon to a window washer.
All of his infidelities added up mean nothing, but Tereza’s one infidelity means everything. It’s an upsetting and dislocating scene featuring Stellan Skarsgard. And the transformation in her from the start of the film to the finish is profound, but subtle. By degrees. She’s amazing in this film, Binoche. Few roles have ever asked as much of her.
Ultimately, the idea that we have only the one life is true, but the film offers the amendment that within that one life we lead many lives along the way, and the smartest thing we can do is stop to enjoy the happiness along the way, and to recognize a good life when we’re lucky enough to make one for ourselves. If you can do that… recognize real happiness and make a life of substance… then nothing can weigh you down, and that unbearable lightness can life you into a heaven of your own making.
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