The Unbearable Lightness of Being: a Modern-day Classic in Review

    Photo by Laurel Haberman for the Los Angeles Beat

As I revisited the rarely screened 1988 drama “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” flashes of the film I had seen only once came back to me, in a montage of stunning, sensual and enigmatic snippets of a larger story that I did not fully grasp at the time. Maybe it was ungraspable, like sand running through your outstretched fingers, and that might just be its charm. On the surface, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” gives a keen glimpse into the intellectual and artistic worlds of the Prague Spring of the 1960s, and the subsequent effects of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. On a deeply emotional level, the raw nature of sex, war, grief and frustration shocks the audience into stark realization, while simultaneously thrilling us with a spirited joie de vivre that speaks to our souls. “Unbearable” has its devout followers, as well as its detractors, whose opinions are as varied and passionate as the characters themselves. Be forewarned: The film is sexually graphic, though never gratuitous. For lovers of film as art, it is a breathtaking chiaroscuro of cinematic imagery not to be missed.

Deftly crafted tone and harsh reality blend into a masterwork of magic realism, where symbolism is your only guide. Mirrors reflect and lay bare angles of identity unrealized even by the characters themselves. Water and light refresh and uplift, while shadow dooms the characters into the world of nightmares. The use of breathing, growing from light to heavy to unbearable, reminds us throughout of the ever-present life force that drives each character to their personal ambition and final destination. The ecstasy of life pitted against the agony of death holds the viewer captive as we embark on a politically charged and erotic journey with one man, Tomas, and two women, Sabina and Tereza.

In November of last year, The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California procured the film to screen alongside a Q & A with the screenwriter-director, Philip Kaufman, and one of the film’s two leading ladies, Juliette Binoche. In an attempt to put context to the abstract and explanation to the process, Kaufman and Binoche bantered and enlightened us on how they managed to film the “unfilmable” with this adaptation of the 1984 novel by Czech author Milan Kundera.

Introduced and moderated by Justin Chang, film critic for the Los Angeles Times, the discussion began as Kaufman took the stage, thanking the academy, producer Saul Zaentz, the Lucas Foundation and Martin Scorsese for their help in making the screening possible. According to Kaufman, Saul Zaentz had negotiated to own the original camera negatives of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which had been distributed through Warner Bros. Kept in the archives, the film needed to be brought into the 21st century, in order to be seen. Originally shot in 35 mm film and shown in London and at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, the festivals of today were unable to screen it as is. The Film Foundation agreed it should be seen, and digital restoration work, supervised by Philip Kaufman himself, began on prints from the original release.

Kaufman explained that when he was first approached to direct “Unbearable,” he was preparing “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” for which he wrote the storyline about retrieving the Ark of the Covenant. The film was shooting in Nepal, a monsoon was heading to the Himalayas, the studio wanted sequels, and he did not want to fly. Saul Zaentz told Kaufman he had just bought the rights to Milan Kundera’s new novel; he had the money to make the film; all he needed was a director. Kaufman spent the next four years co-writing and directing “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” which would later earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Co-screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere, whom Kaufman called “one of the greatest,” spent an unforgettable year with him in San Francisco, writing lines and hanging out. Later, he and Zaentz traveled around Europe, trying to find locations to film, and encountered problems with filming in Eastern Europe. These were the times of the Berlin Wall, and they were attempting to film a novel about the Prague Spring and subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union and others of the Warsaw Pact in 1968. Furthermore, the book was considered taboo by the Cannes Film Festival and others, due to its explicit nature. (When the completed film was eventually shown at the San Francisco Film Festival “Sex in the Cinema,” the Russians heard that 1,000 people waited in line to get in, starting at midnight the night before; soon the Soviets had created an alternate version of reality to the story, portraying themselves as brotherly comrades.) They ended up filming in France and Switzerland, with documentary footage by Czech filmmaker, Jan Nemec. Nemec had shot the inserted footage in Prague, on the morning of the invasion, 20 years before. Though Kundera was skeptical “You won’t be able to match Prague,” Kaufman and his team succeeded in matching, inserting and blending in the footage, procuring tanks from the French army, storyboarding and doing 72 setups in one day. According to Kaufman, “No one had done that before. It was a groundbreaking experience.”

Juliette Binoche, who played Tomas’ wife Tereza in the film, took us into the mind of her character and shared with us her memories of the filmmaking experience, as well as thoughts on acting and life, in general. Timeless and elegant in a black ruffled suit and perfectly tousled hair, the French star began with a tale of how she was picked to play Tereza, which would be her first English language role. It was a week before shooting began. Armed with a host of questions, an armful of paintings and very poor English, Binoche met Philip Kaufman in Paris. Her desire was to win the part of Sabina, an artist and Tomas’ other love interest. Subsequently, she traveled to Columbia, where her father lived, and could not be reached. When she returned, her agent called; they wanted to test her. Casting director Margot Capelier proclaimed “La Binoche is back in town!” and Juliette read for the part of Sabina. (She motioned to the audience with a “so-so” hand gesture.) Here recollections blur with time, and the disagreement heated up. Kaufman insisted that Binoche had read the scene with the dog; Binoche adamantly argued that she had read the dream scene. What they both agreed upon was the role of Sabina was won by Lena Olin, who happened to be pregnant at the time.

It took Binoche two and a half days to get the Czech accent down, and whichever scene she read greatly impressed Daniel Day-Lewis, who was cast as the brain surgeon Tomas. “Don’t you have any damn Kleenex?” Day-Lewis had said, crying. When Binoche left, he hugged and kissed Kaufman because of her performance and told him “she’s so vibrant.” Juliette admitted she does love to play and had attended clown school in France. Though underneath the clowning, she had a sense of rightness about a scene. According to Kaufman, “Daniel is funny, too , but intense. He went to Prague to watch brain surgeries.” Regarding Binoche as an actor, Kaufman recounted: “The cinema gods were spreading fairy dust on me to get to work with her.”

While there had been no time for her to go to Prague to prepare — police and political situations at the time made it impossible — she did read the book every day, to be inspired by the writing and what was underneath. She also had dinner with Kundera and his wife, whose real-life complex love triangle was the basis for the novel. Kundera’s lover’s paintings can be seen in the finished film. (Watch the darkroom scene for a photo of Kundera, his wife and son.) According to Binoche, they did rehearse, but Kaufman was open to suggestions, and it was a very freeing experience.

Kaufman told us that he would forget to say “Cut,” he would be so enthralled by the actors. The scene in which Juliette and Lena photograph each other was particularly memorable. They had spent two days rehearsing, and the two women directed it themselves, in a way, without much direction from Kaufman. The key shot that made the scene was where Tereza (Juliette) raised the camera, hesitating with erotic uncertainty. (Years later, Kaufman got a call from a guy named “Kubrick,” who wanted to ask him about the photo scene. He said to Kaufman, “Where she raised the camera…where did you find that Praktica camera?”) For Binoche, the nude scene was not easy; as an actor, she gets shy. “But an actor must come up with solutions,” she told us. After Lena Olin had her baby and was breastfeeding and exhausted, Kaufman had sent her home. This left Juliette to film the scene by herself, using tape to interact with, but still she managed to bring emotion to the character. In so doing, she lifted the scene to serve the purpose of the film, she recalled. Because she had family in Poland, on “the other side of the wall,” (her mother had left in 1939) the filming experience in Europe meant a great deal to her. One difficult scene for Binoche, and one where she had to improvise, was where “the tank came down the little road. He said, ‘Just go!’” She was emotionally unready and panicked, as the shadow of the tank loomed large on the building, and she ran with the dog, who falls over, creating an emotional moment for herself as well as the audience.

At the screening, many of the audience members had a chance to pose questions to Kaufman and Binoche; one in the crowd compared “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” to Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s work and the way in which his films found the interior of character. Kaufman told the audience that cinematographer Sven Nykvist had been trained by the Swedish and worked with Swedish actors, such as Stellan Skarsgard, who played The Engineer. Sven would set up to light the master scene, knowing instinctively what the next shot would be.

The next question went to Juliette. Which of her films did she feel was most personal to her? She felt that each film creates a connection. She loves living in the present time. It is left to the director to pay attention to the details.

“Living in the present is the only way to reach eternity. Actors put themselves in timeless space, where magic happens. With ‘Unbearable,’ you find the qualities of letting yourself just be, to explore and love and explore love. There is always an opportunity to learn something and not repeat. To go to bat. And the present time makes the difference.”

A final question from the audience asked about the process of going from novel to film. After being steeped in the novel, is that why you so captivatingly capture the character? Binoche responded, “It was an accident! Like bubbles in water, you create a life inside you. It is beyond your comprehension and control. Chemistry with actors, technicians, etc. Science is the key; it allows you to get control, allowing the act of acting inside of you. But you must be prepared before. The third take might save your ass! What was the catalyst of emotions he wanted in the character? Then put it aside. The director’s vision and emotions is a chemistry beyond comprehension. Kundera’s wife was happy with Tereza; preserving the book is the essence.”

The moderator, Justin Chang, wondered if Kaufman had been cautious about the adaptation and had received criticism from Kundera. Kaufman felt that it was a great book but noted that it was said it could not be filmed: It has a musical structure and is like philosophers rambling in a world politicized to the extreme. A few liberties he had taken in adapting the film include removing the most important character and having music replace the narration. The music from composer Leos Janacek was perfect — simple but filled with tension. Kaufman and Kundera worked together for weeks, and Kaufman revealed an exclusive detail to the audience: Kundera, who had taught film in Prague, had himself written the wedding scene.

According to Kaufman, it takes great actors to analyze the characters and find their core. They live with it. On relating to the characters: “For men, it’s who would you like to sleep with? For women, it’s who would you like to be?” The character of Sabina is strong, in exile. Tereza shows a weakness and heaviness. Calling it an “intimate epic,” Kaufman had to “be Tereza” in a way, to direct her well.

The title of the novel and film is often misunderstood. In actuality, the world is really hard, and therefore, the correct interpretation in meaning is that lightness itself is unsustainable within that world. The character of Tereza can’t make life light, until the end, as symbolized by the visual lightness and the character’s completeness, while trapped in a world that is difficult. She is learning to live in the present.

Regarding the character of Sabina, Binoche remarks that she is an artist but is making a freedom for herself to choose that life. “We’re faced with political truths. We want frivolity. Tereza, though, is serious and looking for her truth, back to the comfort of a world she knows. Her world is a prison. Daniel Day-Lewis’ character Tomas follows her, like Orpheus. See the hippies and the musicians, and then, a funeral and death.”

Photo by Laurel Haberman for the Los Angeles Beat

The last big reveal of the evening was a surprise about the literal ending of the film itself. Kaufman admitted that it was one of the first scenes they had shot and that, in the struggle to find the perfect ending, he had shot three greatly different versions. In trying to find the tone of the writing, he had first used a circling shot, in which the camera went dancing down to the truck on the road, like a moth circling a flame. The effect, although interesting, did not work well in the film. He then tried another more emotional approach, where the married couple walks alongside statues on a bridge in Prague and are reunited with the dog they had loved and lost, who came running to them at their command. However, it was in the editing process where they found the perfect ending. It was the only time Kaufman broke from straightforward storytelling. From the point of view of the light at the end of the tunnel of trees, the poignant and poetic final scene captures and portrays the delicate balance of the heaviness and lightness of being.

Laurel Haberman

About Laurel Haberman

Laurel Haberman is an authentic native Valley Girl, who finds observations and paradoxes down L.A's hottest rabbit holes. She has worn many hats, including work in show biz news, and the detective and travel industries. Currently a digital editor and spinner of stories by day, Laurel loves Fellini flicks, the smell of old books and long walks on the beach. As a rocker-at-large, she would do almost anything for a cool blues jam and a front-row ticket to the Rolling Stones.
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