The sensuality and play of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’

As part of its reconsideration of key films in Juliette Binoche’s career, Reverse Shot turns to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Philip Kaufman’s adaption of Milan Kundera’s novel that, according to Mark Asch, introduced the kind of film beloved by Miramax a few years later. “The 1990s were the final, tired echo of aspirational Boomer cinephilia—a time when daily-newspaper critics were constantly on the lookout for vestigial traces of the Janus Films ’60s, that golden age of heady, glamorous foreign films, and frequently found it preceded with the Miramax logo,” Asch writes. The Unbearable Lightness of Being transcends this taxonomy because it’s more playful than the competition; it’s not light, it’s buoyant. Kaufman may straighten Kundera’s digressions, but it results in no loss of esprit. To create a film infused with a Mann-ian irony lacking in the original novel is a miracle.

As Tereza, Binoche inhabits a writer’s conceit with an empathetic curiosity. She’s fascinated by her apartment, by Daniel Day-Lewis’ Tomas, by Prague itself. Tomas’ mistress Sabina (Lena Olin)  fascinates her, albeit warily. Regarding the world as if she were in a constant state of discovery, Teresa feels more deeply than the other characters. She also gets hurt more easily. Asch studies one of her sharpest scenes:

When Tomas creeps into the apartment after a spell of tomcatting, and Tereza begs him, pathetically, to “Take me to […] the other women”—she says it like vee-men, because her character is Czech—she and Kaufman time the beats of her speech so that she starts out in bed, gets out to pace across the floor, and finishes by looking straight into the camera, even as Binoche’s performance cycles from posturing, blank-eyed accusation, to hand-wringing self-pity, to an imploring tone that hits its peak before the shot or monologue ends. She finishes on a down note, looking away from the camera, as if suddenly surprised by the depth of her own abjection, just as Tomas is taken by his sense of obligation in one of the film’s many nimble role-reversals.

When Tomas and Tereza’s dog Karenin succumbs to cancer, Binoche does a rare thing: in one of the only times I can remember, I pity the mourner, not the pet.

 

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