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The Unbearable Lightness of Being


‘…one of the great narratives about life, fate, poetry and fatality…’

After the turgid excesses of considering the unbearable muck of Tinto Brass, let’s be sex-positive with a rave review for the super-sexy The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a film and novel in the spotlight today due to the death of the esteemed Czech author Milan Kundera. Kundera preferred to be known as French, having moved to France as part of his exile from the Communist regime in the mid 70’s; his books were banned in his homeland, although Jaromil Jires’ film of The Joke was released back in 1969, before being withdrawn for two decades.

Kundera’s deeply personal novel about the erotic exploits of a Czech brain surgeon and his struggle for spiritual freedom in and out of Prague was skilfully adapted to the screen by Bunuel’s regular collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere and writer/director Phillip Kaufman. In a career littered with striking performances, Daniel Day-Lewis brings his trademark intensity to bear on the role of good doctor Thomas, with Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche amongst his partners.

The idea of sexual expression as a political force against repressive government was and still is an unusual theme, and Kaufman explores it in detail, comfortable with rampaging tanks and skinny-dipping foreplay alike. 171 minutes is a long time for a simple drama about one man’s romances, but the scope of Tomas’ s life inside and outside Communist rule justifies the elaborate, yet always personal detail. Kundera lived long enough to see the bodies of his enemies float by in the river, then see their tyrannical cause resurrected under the guise of market capitalism.

For Tomas to be such a womaniser may be problematic for some readers and viewers today, but that’s firmly at the beating heart of the book; Kundera was an advisor on the film, but disassociated himself from the film after release. He was probably right to say that the film is different in many ways from the book, but if you’re looking for an accessible route into Kundera’s work, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is one of the great narratives about life, fate, poetry and fatality, with a stunning, ingenious ending. So let’s say our goodbyes and put Kundera to rest with a poem he contributed on the set of the film, a lullaby that Tomas delivers that reflects that even for a brilliant brain surgeon, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy… You can sleep. Sleep in my arms. Like a baby bird. Like a broom among brooms… in a broom closet. Like a tiny parrot. Like a whistle. Like a little song. A song sung by a forest… within a forest… a thousand years ago.    



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  1. I loved the book and you are right, it’s nothing like the book…still the acting was brilliant in this and it was pretty watchable…I loved your review of it and it reminded me to give this film another go. Juliette Binoche was the big highlight in this movie for me

    • I’m planning on re-watching it again, I’d reworked an older review on Kundera’s death, but even that process enthused me to go back and read the book AND see the film. They’re both engrossing, but in different ways.

  2. By chance, I began reading the book last week. We have a beautiful 20th anniversary edition in the bookshop and I dipped in. Super writer and as I recalled I enjoyed the film, despite its length. I could watch Daniel Day-Lewis for hours – and often been forced to. Be interested to see how it plays with a modern generation.

    • Had a few messages from friends recalling his work and outlook. This film totally blew me away when I saw it at the Grosvenor. Dark and serious, but with a philosophical undercurrent that really appealed to me. Something to live by at the time. A few comments notes that it’s roughly the length of a comic book movie these days, but with a lot more to think about. I’d forgotten the sublime ending, a Pulp Fiction walk into a setting sun. Brilliant writer.

      • Can’t recall where I saw it, but it was totally unexpected. I have a feeling I read the book after not before. This was the first film Day Lewis made after the double whammy of My Beautiful Launderette and Room with a View. In one of the great release coups, both those films opened in New York on the same day and blew critics away. They couldn’t believe it was the same actor.

  3. Pfffft, he totally stole my title “The Unbearable Lightness of Being Bookstooge”. If he wasn’t dead, I’d be suing him for copyright infringement and defamation of character and breach of contract and gluttony and also whatever else my lawyer can think of.

    Plus, if I’m not going to watch a 3hr super hero movie, I do not see how I could possibly sit through something like this.

    • I could watch this much more easily than Quantumania!

      That phrase is in the public domain now, so you can knock yourself out with it!

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