Friday, December 18, 2020

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being is darkly elegiac, somber and beautiful at the same time. Of course, it can’t be extricated from the Milan Kundera novel on which it’s based and in this sense deals with sexual freedom as an allegory for politics or politics as a metaphor for sex and love, or really both. Kundera was gifted with a rare ability to find emotion in the erotic, which is something to which Kaufman's adaptation aspires.Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a brain surgeon and significantly a seeker after a higher level of consciousness. How is he to find it? In sexual conquest, eroticism, romance, love itself or all of the above? He's married to Tereza (Juliette Binoche) while having an affair with Sabina (Lena Olin), an artist. Tereza, a country girl, is like a character out of Chekhov. When Tomas first meets her, she's a dreamer who's seeking a new life. In fact, she comes to their initial rendezvous with a copy of Anna Karenina in hand. The palette of romantic liaisons is no sooner established than politics raises its ugly head. If he had his druthers Tomas would live in a state of perpetual enchantment, but it’s l968. The Russians invade and the liberalization of the Dubcek regime (“socialism with a human face”) is summarily extinguished. There's a chrysalis of something almost indescribable in the movie. Is it that individual freedom is as fragile as the notion of democracy? “Life's so light," Tomas says. "Like an outline we can't ever fill in or correct." A wonderfully simple formulation follows a long disquisition about how Oedipus blinds himself when he realizes the truth, “Morality has changed since Oedipus.” Vision is a recurring theme; Tomas' repeated "take off your clothes" is a physical as well as metaphysical imperative. Indeed the book Tomas himself carries around is Sophocles' Oedipus. But Sabina provides the piece de resistance as she stares out a restaurant window at the facade of a bank, “those buildings are the uglification of the world. The only place we can find beauty is if its persecutors have overlooked it. It's a planetary process.” Rapture is what is at work. In one scene which recalls the famously erotic wrestling match between two models in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966), Tereza photographs Serena naked and then resists as Sabina repays the compliment. The ensuing battle which becomes a love duet is only interrupted by the appearance of one of Sabina’s lovers, Franz (Derek de Lint). The novel about Prague Spring was written in l984 and turned  into a movie in l988. The story ends as a kind of liebestod or love in death.  Now 32 years later history has had the last laugh. In fact, the title of  Kundera’s first novel The Joke (1967) was strangely prescient. 

Read "Trumpty Dumpty's Great Fall," by Francis Levy, The East Hampton Star

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