The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Phil Kaufman is one of the few American directors who combines a maturely literary sensibility with a sound understanding of how the film medium works. His most successful movies play to that pair of strengths, adventurously. In 1988, after having made a magnificent film of Tom Wolfe’s allegedly unfilmable nonfiction tome The Right Stuff, Kaufman turned to a magnificent film of Milan Kundera’s allegedly unfilmable novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Looking again at the latter now, it’s easy to wonder: How could it not have been filmed, and in just this way? A buoyant Daniel Day-Lewis plays Tomas, the Czech libertine choosing between sexual liberty and provincial love — as embodied by Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche, respectively — in a politically deadening era. It’s a story about lovemaking as subversion of totalitarian oppression, and to transpose it from page to screen requires not only the right tools, but also the skills to handle them safely. The filmmaker stays alert to the prospects. For one thing, as he rhetorically but rightly observes in his commentary, “What could be more visual than Juliette Binoche’s face?” Amen to that. For another, there’s editor Walter Murch’s brilliantly cinematic assemblage of real footage from Russia’s military incursion into the Prague Spring. That the world has changed so sharply since then, and again since this film’s theatrical release, only enhances its poignant and affirming sensuality.