Film -- Kundera, the Unbearable Lightness of Being
When Milan Kundera wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he was a political exile from Czechoslovakia, living in France, whose books were banned in his native country. Thus, it is not surprising that his fiction addresses oppression and its instruments, particularly language. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kundera's character, Tomas, is converted from surgeon to window-washer for refusing to cooperate with the authorities. Unlike Malcolm's subject, however, Tomas comes to find this transformation a personal reprieve, a feeling which is aided by the numerous sexual dalliances his new position affords him. Kundera's portrayal of Tomas's fate and his book's success in the west only exacerbated the sense of injury felt by those who had stayed in Czechoslovakia and had lived out the reality that Kundera 'improved on' in his fable of totalitarianism.
The novel is primarily philosophical and ironic, lacking vivid characters and compelling plots. An additional obstacle is that the novel's protagonist is its narrator, who cannot be present in the film, but the result is more entertaining and stimulating than might have been expected. In my opinion the philosophical aspect of the book gives Kaufman a free hand to delve heartily into presenting the audience with his philosophy of life as well as the characters point-of-view. It plays out beautifully.
Philip Kaufman's Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), meticulously and stylishly explores the compensatory strategies that the Russians concoct for finding freedom in their everyday lives. The two main strategies are those of sex and of art. America is present in The Unbearable Lightness of Being only as one possible refuge from Russian oppression and only one of the three central characters chooses it. Perhaps more than any other film of the decade, The Unbearable Lightness of Being denies the faceless dehumanization of the rightist militarist films and affirms the humanity of the real people who live behind the iron curtain. In her teasing way, Sabina asks Tomas, "Are you only seeking for pleasure or is every woman a new land that you wish to explore?" In eighties film, the new land that Americans wished to explore was Russia, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being was the most humanistic and least sensational of explorations.
Daniel Day-Lewis has said that when he first read Kundera's novel he considered it un-filmable, and several of the reviewers of THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING agreed with its star's initial judgment (Magill's Survey of Cinema, 1995). Kaufman and his co-screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere, decided to present their impressions of the novel with no pretensions of strict faithfulness. In addition to eliminating the omnipresent narrator, the most significant change is that the disordered events of the novel are presented in chronological order in the film, except that Sabina is notified of her friends' deaths before the viewer knows about their fates. The film is less philosophical and ironic than the novel, more obviously political, more blatantly erotic. As a result, it is more realistic and less whimsical than the book. While Kundera's characters are pawns on an intellectual chessboard, Kaufman and Carriere have turned The Unbearable Lightness of Being into a tale of the conflicting emotions of the protagonists.
The style of The Unbearable Lightness of Being is that of Georges Rouault clear bright strokes combined with textures layered on with a palate knife. Set in Prague in 1968 at the time known as "Prague Spring," which was a brief flowering of freedom of speech and artistic expression, a so-called "socialism with a human face" before the Soviet tanks closed everything down as they had done in Hungary a decade earlier, and like Roualt's paintings, the coarse textures of the city in the first third of the film contrast to the romantic gossamer of the provincial forests in the final third. These two sections are composed as paintings, while the middle third of film, the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and the flight of the major characters from that repression to Geneva, captures the violence of the political conflict in stark black-and-white terms. Two mediums, the painterly medium of romance and the realistic medium of photography, represent how sexuality and imagination, love and art, must struggle constantly against the weight of political oppression.