Memo to filmmakers: be very careful if you decide to include the word “unbearable” in the title of your movie, especially when the product is almost three hours long. Such convenience might make things too easy for persnickety critics who can use the film’s name to provide some catty remarks.
In the case of Philip Kaufman’s 1988 opus, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the result dabbles with excessively ponderous qualities at times, but it never started to become unbearable. The movie dealt with the “Prague Spring” experienced in Czechoslovakia in 1968. At that time, a peaceful revolution started to occur in which the Czechs rebelled against the tyranny of the communist regime and developed newfound freedom in art, literature, and other areas. However, the liberties were short-lived; by August 1968, Soviet troops rolled into the country and occupied its major cities. Before too long, the liberalization of Czechoslovakia came to an end, as the mighty paw of the Russian bear stamped the reforms out of existence.
Against that backdrop, Unbearable follows a love triangle. Much like Gone With the Wind, Unbearable uses historically significant events to frame a human drama, and it does so fairly successfully. Unbearable focuses on Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), a dashing and successful surgeon who flits from one romantic conquest to another. Smug and handsome, he gets his pick of the ladies and shows no desire to alter his hedonistic existence.
Actually, Tomas maintains one consistent dalliance with sexy photographer Sabina (Lena Olin). The two keep up an open relationship, as both actively avoid/fear anything deeper than that. Tomas changes his mind, however, during a spa visit when he meets local waitress Tereza (Juliette Binoche). He almost immediately falls for her, and she eventually winds up on his door in Prague. The two quickly connect and marry before long.
Across the space of a period of time, these three lives intertwine, all as we see the events that take place in Czechoslovakia. As the Soviets crack down on freedoms, Tomas and Sabina attempt to make a life in Switzerland, but she feels homesick so they make sacrifices to return. There they’re confronted with the harsh realities of a Soviet-dominated country. Due to some earlier, anti-communist writings, Tomas becomes a persona non grata in society; he loses his lucrative medical practice and must settle for menial work. Events take a surprising but satisfying twist toward the ending, but I’ll leave the specifics out of my synopsis.
Frankly, Unbearable probably does run too long, as Kaufman sits too long on some topics. However, the pacing usually works well, as the events unfold at a natural and satisfactory rate. Probably the strongest aspect of the film stems from the loose way in which it combines history with fiction, and I don’t refer to the integration of archival footage into new shots. Unbearable inserts its characters into fact with aplomb, as it never tries to make them heroes or particularly prominent folks. History never takes the forefront, which is appropriate, for Unbearable really isn’t meant to tell the details of this era, at least not in a direct manner.
Instead, the film drifts around most of the facts, and it works more through inference than anything else. We see the effects upon the characters without a great deal of explicit exposition, which allows these aspects to appear in a gentle and pleasing manner. I often feel that movies about huge historical events work best when they focus on smaller subtopics, and usually it seems most logical to view the actions from the viewpoint of one or two people. For example, Sophie’s Choice remains a moving and effective piece largely because it restrained itself to this more personal heart.
The same goes for Unbearable, which depicts the negative effects of the Soviet oppression in a reasonably objective and detached manner. To be sure, we care for the characters, but Kaufman doesn’t try to wring excessive pathos out of the situations, even though the circumstances easily could have gone in that direction.
Ultimately, The Unbearable Lightness of Being isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s too long and slow-paced to work for many. However, if you go into it prepared for this rate of development, you should find a lot of pleasure at the center of the film.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture displayed a few concerns, as a whole it offered a fairly clear and vivid impression.
Sharpness largely appeared to be crisp and detailed. A few instances of softness occurred, but most of the movie looked nicely detailed and accurate. No significant problems related to moiré effects or jagged edges, but print flaws were a periodic concern. Some light appeared throughout the film, and speckles could become somewhat heavy at times. For instance, check out the first scene with Binoche in Prague. Note that these comments do not relate to the scenes that provided intentional defects. Some material was meant to fit in with archival footage, and those shots were mucked up so they would match. I didn’t regard these as “flaws” and didn’t factor them into my grade.
Colors looked consistently warm and accurate. The film offered a nicely natural and clear palette, and the DVD replicated the hues well. The different colors appeared clean and distinct, and they could be vibrant and bold when necessary. Black levels seemed to be very deep and rich, especially as displayed through clothes. Shadow detail could appear a bit murky at times, though, as some interiors looked a bit drab and flat. However, Unbearable largely provided a solid and attractive image.
Even better was the Dolby Surround soundtrack of Unbearable. This mix provided a surprisingly rich and involving affair that nicely complemented the drama. The soundfield showed solid breadth and dimensionality. Music dominated the affair, as the score spread cleanly to the side and rear speakers throughout the movie. Effects also offered good ambience from these channels, but for the most part, those elements remained a fairly minor aspect of the mix. Nonetheless, the effects added a good level of atmosphere to the proceedings, especially when the tanks rolled onto the scene. Those segments because especially lively and realistic, and they worked well.
Audio quality came across as very positive. Speech always sounded crisp and natural, and I detected no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects were accurate and believable, and when they became loud, they displayed solid dynamics and fidelity. Those tanks really rumbled across the screen with fine depth and low-end, and the score also showed good response. The music was clean and bright, and it displayed nicely warm and vibrant tones. In the end, the soundtrack of Unbearable was a very fine one, especially for its age.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being includes only one significant extra, but it’s a good one. We find an audio commentary from director Philip Kaufman, screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, actress Lena Olin and editor Walter Murch. As is typical of Criterion commentaries, for this one all of the participants were recorded individually and their remarks were edited together. As also is typical of Criterion tracks, this results in a pretty strong piece during which I learned a lot about Unbearable. Kaufman probably provided the most information, but I thought the track was well balanced as a whole, and each participant added a lot of useful data. Carriere was especially interesting since he helped give some interpretation of the film, and I also liked Murch’s discussions of his editing philosophies, with topics such as the reason why he never visits the set. Due to the length of the movie, the commentary could drag slightly at times, but as a whole, I thought it was quite solid.
Otherwise, the only supplement found with this DVD was a booklet that included a text essay. It seems strange that no trailer or other minor extras appeared, but that’s the way it is!
The Unbearable Lightness of Being offers an unusual take on an interesting subject. Though essentially a romance at heart, the movie uses the backdrop of a quiet revolution to show the stultifying effects of governmental and societal impression on bright, vivacious people. The DVD offers good picture and sound plus a solid audio commentary. Though it can move a little slowly at times, Unbearable provides a largely moving and compelling journey.