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Unbearable Lightness of Being, The

MGM // R // September 17, 2002
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by D.K. Holm | posted October 3, 2002 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

This is the MGM DVD version of the not-so-long awaited Orion film that Criterion had in its catalog (number 55) until the rights to it lapsed, along with all the other films Criterion had from Orion.

Now that it is here again the film comes across like another one of those quasi-arty American financed films with an all European cast. The film Lightness most resembles is The English Patient, though less commercially successfully— Lightness only made about $10 million compared with the Oscar winning Patient's multimillions. Both films are based on international bestsellers, both films are tales of love set against a backdrop of political turmoil, both films are edited by Walter Murch, and both films star Juiette Binoche.

In The Conversations (Knopf, 339 pages, $35, ISBN 0 375 41386 3), the recent interview book with Murch, the editor says about Lightness, "Phil [Kaufman]—for his own reasons, probably correctly—didn't want to take [the editing] that far [cutting its length and reassembling it]. Looking back on it now, I think we probably would have learned something if we had." Murch adds that he thinks the film still holds up today. But modern viewers are going to perceived the film as awfully long for a story in which not especially much happens. Surprisingly (or not) Murch doesn't spend as much time on this film as he does the big hits such as The Godfather or Patient, even though analyzing "failures" can be just as informative as analyzing successes.

Not that Lightness is a dog. On the contrary it is well written by long time screenwriting hand Jean-Claude Carrière from Milan Kundera's novel, and is smoothly directed by Philip Kaufman (who, by the way, doesn't come off so well in a recent bio of Clint Eastwood by Patrick McGilligan). If there is anything wrong with the film, the faults lie in the Gumpish attempts to insert the cast into actual footage of the Czech crackdown.

Shorn of its exotic setting and political backdrop Lightness is the story of a philanderer who finally settles down, then realizes he doesn't like it. If it were set in an American college it would have been called Wonder Boys or Drive, He Said. The lady killer is Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), a Czech surgeon in the '60s who has an unusually frank seduction technique. He simply asks women to take off their clothes. It's amazing how many women comply (after all, he is a doctor).

He has a purely sexual relationship with the artist Sabine (Lena Olin). But on a trip to another town, he catches the eye of the young, inexperienced student Tereza (Binoche). Soon the man and his two women have something akin to a threesome. Then the events of 1968 intervene. They participate in the rebellion, but then flee to Switzerland for a while. After some romantic and career entanglements there, Tomas and Tereza return to Prague, where the still resistant Tomas is demoted to window cleaner. Then the pair end up on a farm, growing closer together as they do good, honest work tilling the field. Unlike Patient, the narrative of Lightness ends on a somewhat bleaker note of cosmic mishap, like the end of The Wages of Fear, or Contempt (and its scion, Medium Cool).

Like many of Kaufman's films, Lightness can be viewed as yet another effort by the director to tell the story of the end of, and betrayal of, the '60s. All the events in Czechoslovakia can be viewed as analogs of events in America: the ribald freedom of the hippie movement, the crushing of it by the police and military, agents provocateur, spies, the retreat into rural living. Unfortunately, some viewers, despite the classicism Kaufman brings to the material, may find that the narrative and the running time are at odds.


VIDEO: The Criterion disc transfer came from a worn out print. The MGM transfer seems much better. I also happen to think that the MGM disc of The Silence of the Lambs is much better than its now also out of print Criterion counterpart. The Criterion struck me as too dark, it didn't have subtitles, and the MGM disc bore numerous deleted scenes that struck me as essential to the film and which should have been left in, or added later as a director's cut. In any case, fans of Lightness should be well pleased with MGM's work on this transfer.

SOUND: In the sound department, MGM has supplied a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, which is effective in the crowd scenes, and with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

MENUS: The static, silent menu offers 24 chapter scene selection for the 173 minute movie.

PACKAGING: The keep case this film comes in has a close-up photo of Day-Lewis and Binoche seemingly about to kiss, against a backdrop of clouds and water. This is a fairly misleading photo, given that the whole point of the movie is that Day-Lewis does not succumb to the pleasures of marriage, at least until near the end. Curiously, another disc released by MGM at the same time, of Texasville, has a virtually identical cover, showing Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd embracing in close up against a similar backdrop. I think the packagers mixed up the backgrounds. The label shows a two-tone image of some water. A one page insert gives the chapter breakdowns.

EXTRAS: From Criterion, Unbearable came with an edited yak track with Kaufman, Carrière, Murch, and Olin. MGM's Unbearable comes only with the trailer, which promises more sex than there actually is in the movie.

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