By Ray Sawhill
The three geographical and dramatic turning-points in the film “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” are initiated by Tereza. They occur when she’s interrogated and, surrounded by slides, negatives and projectors, understands that what for her has been an extension outward of herself — photography — is now being used against everything she cares about; when, in the western world, she is confused and upset by taking nude photographs of Sabina; and when she has sex with a near-stranger in occupied Prague. (These scenes embody the same cluster of issues, too: power, the uses and misuses of imagery, betrayal, and mirroring.) The central turning point of the film is the mutual-nude-photography session between Tereza and Sabina: the movie literally balances and turns on that scene of woman/camera/woman/mirrors. The scene itself is a double-sided mirror at the heart of the movie. After it, Tereza returns with Tomas to the Czech countryside, and Sabina winds up alone in California.
Philip Kaufman’s film has a life and liveliness quite distinct from the Milan Kundera novel it’s based on. The film is a combination of conceptual sophistication and lustiness that could be said to be about the lure of the idea of an Old Country. Tereza represents this, or something like it (the rural, the direct) to Tomas; Kaufman invites us to let Czechoslovakia itself, with its ancient culture and modern political tragedies, represent something like it to us. Viewed outside the terms of the movie, Tereza may appear to be a dumb, enchanting guilt-tripper, but it’s clear that the film uses her to draw from us our feelings about not being whole.
In the past, Kaufman tried to give some of his movies melancholy undertones. Here he makes melancholy the point of the film, proposing that we view Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche as representing what many educated adults feel torn away or cut off from. His work suggests that he believes that expertise, energy and sophistication can bring him only so far — that without what Czechoslovakia/Tereza/Juliette Binoche represents, his own work isn’t emotionally complete. In this film, Kaufman isn’t just fearless about sentiment, he makes of traditional forms of sentiment (dappled forest light, the camera wheeling around and around embracing lovers, etc.) his very material.
It seems to me that Janacek’s music (a little like Dvorak’s, but much more so: Dvorak always remained a bit of a peasant himself) is about how learning a sophisticated language, even one you may love, can remove you from your sources. It’s about looking back and realizing you can never again utter a peasant’s unself-conscious cri de coeur. (Whether you were ever actually able to doesn’t really matter: Janacek can stand in our minds for a cosmopolitan man looking at the countryside, an emigré looking back on his homeland, or any of us contemplating childhood.) Time passing in this kind of work is implicit. Janacek, and Kaufman in this film, seem to simply turn around at a certain point and take note of the fact that time has passed, all on its own. (This is a constructed illusion: one way Kaufman achieves it is by making a motif of shots of passing countryside and water seen through car and train windows. He’s using these sentimental-movie-cliché shots in ways that suggest Janacek’s use of folk melodies, and he’s weaving our feelings about them into the movie.) Incorporating cris de coeur (even if those of others, even if of created others) into the work becomes a tribute, a resurrection and a nostalgic act. Janacek’s music is about the beauty of where you are and the beauty of where you (may or may not) come from and the distance between — and a little about how that distance has perhaps helped enable you to find the beauty in where you come from, has maybe even helped you express your love. It’s a little about the absurdity of all this. It’s about the costs and rewards of awareness.
Kaufman uses being in the position of being a Hollywood filmmaker with an international cast making a big-budget movie about Czechoslovakia in 1968 — he has worked that nuttiness into the film. (He uses Janacek’s music to mirror his themes.) Think about how Tomas and Sabina enjoy each other’s playful erotic expertise (and how Day-Lewis and Lena Olin enjoy each other’s acting expertise): when they’re with each other (and often when they’re with others) they manage to turn everything into an enticing erotic challenge. The fun of being together for them is taking everything, and responding to everything, erotically.
They recognize this ability in each other and delight in it; that’s the basis of their friendship, it’s what they share. With others, they’re sneaky, even if sneakily direct; with each other they can be direct, even if that means being direct about their sneakiness. Tomas looks out from under his eyebrows and says “Take off your clothes.” Painting for Sabina seems to be a way of turning herself on: she keeps her hat by her side, and sometimes wears sexy underwear as she paints. If turning herself on involves or demands other people, fine. The female Sabina makes herself into an object that can be fallen in love with, and her art work is all mirrors, silhouettes and water imagery; the goatish Tomas is a surgeon, all analysis and action.
This kind of expertise can produce its own high: remember Olin on the train with her Geneva lover when he tells her he’s married? For an instant she looks stricken — will she become angry or dismayed? Then she manages to get turned on by this new bit of information. It’s a torchy moment: she thrusts her head out the window and turns her face to the rain. Kaufman uses rain and water in the film for its associations with death, fate and history. Sabina is being impudent; she’s defying what the elements would have her do. She’s defying what Tereza contemplates returning to after she realizes that the tall Prague stranger she has sex with may not have had the cleanest of motives. Tereza is introduced to us swimming in a pool; later, in her nightmare/fantasy about Tomas’ catting around, she’s in a pool too, her vision bobbing above and then below the surface. And in the country, when Tereza and Tomas move there, it’s often raining.
When Day-Lewis is a window-washer — and Kaufman uses Tomas’ position vis à vis windows and frames to make his status in relation to established power clear: for instance, Tomas is introduced at the beginning of the film in a commanding position, “performing” and being observed through a window, ordering a nurse to take her clothes off — and the woman invites him in, he sees photos on a bureau of her with what could be her father or her husband, who appears to be a successful Party hack. There’s a moment — is Tomas thrown out of his intrigued, sexed-up mood by this, or can he sustain it? — and then he’s going with it, and when his eyes return to her you know something of the (power-saturated? vengeful?) flavor his sex with her will have. Purity doesn’t mean a lot to Sabina and Tomas. They’re fallen, and they like it that way.
The taste of sex-without-love changes for Tomas in the post-invasion country, but he can get off on the new taste, and even enjoy his ability to get off on it. That sex is now fraught with pitfalls and ugly possibilities doesn’t prevent him from taking erotic pleasure; he’s able to use the danger and his own resentment as flavors, spices. The danger terrifies and sickens Tereza. Kaufman uses the sound of breathing as one expression of this. When Tereza arrives at Tomas’ apartment early in the film and he raises her sweater, Kaufman amplifies her frightened, aroused breathing — it’s funny and sexy. When they have returned to Prague after the invasion and we again hear her breathing that clearly, it’s when she sniffs another woman’s scent in Tomas’ hair. Anticipation vs. surveillance: the political shift has effected them even on that level.
The effect of the political shift on what’s allowed is made clearest in this film’s theater/performance element. Tomas has written a little scribble for a newspaper about “Oedipus The King.” It’s intended both seriously and playfully — I mean it and I don’t mean it, and you know in which ways — and readers understand and enjoy it. When he returns to Prague after the invasion, and is wooed and grilled, the policeman asks Tomas if he “really” meant that the Party leaders should pluck their eyes out. Of course he didn’t, and you watch Tomas size up how things now work. What was once theater — playful and liberating — is now read literally and used against you.
The enjoyment of expertise can be a basis for companionship and comradeship — it’s like “The Right Stuff.” Whizz-bang, so to speak. All those scenes of Tomas and Sabina making it in front of her mirrors and mirror-sculptures: they enjoy their reflections, their self-consciousness. To them it’s an erotic heightener. (And it’s akin to the lustiness and showmanship, the surface zappiness, of Kaufman’s earlier movies.) There’s swagger and brio in their sex, as there’s swagger and brio in the way Day Lewis and Olin work the fairly-explicit sex into their performances — they seem to turn that into an erotic performance challenge. They enjoy being cut loose, they enjoy their sophistication — she’s an adventuress, he’s a buccaneer.
Then Tomas falls for pure/peasant/uncouth/soulful/rooted-in-the soil/simple Tereza, whose idea of getting into sex seems to involve not a whole lot more than smooshing herself against him. She comes to the city during the Prague Spring. She’s part of what the free atmosphere coaxes forth, and she emerges from herself, first from the country and then from Tomas’ apartment — we’re given a shot of her standing behind Tomas’ window — into the commerce of life via her camera.
Sexually, she’s a klutz, nothing but needs and fears. But when Tomas is with her, what he feels seems deeper, more direct and genuine. He discovers a whole range of what seems to him to be pure feelings; she awakens in him the belief that without a connection to something “genuine” he’s incomplete, and that she is that something “genuine.” What she stirs up in him he misses otherwise. When she returns to Czechoslovakia we see him, through a window, use on another barmaid the same routine — mouthing the word “cognac” — he used to pick up Tereza. He isn’t being callous, he’s a performer enjoying his bag of tricks. But it isn’t the same thing for him anymore.
Tereza’s feeling so often crushed has some relation to what Tomas finds himself loving in her, and in oppressed Czechslovakia. She feels lost and confused in Geneva; she can’t handle western-style freedom, and her confusion is brought out in the nude-photography scene: she’s aroused and terrified, she genuinely doesn’t have any idea what’s going on. (It suggests a world of total disconnectedness, and she can’t make sense of that.) Surrounded by mirrors and art and facing another woman, she can’t account for her confusion or her arousal. She grows terribly nonplused when she’s turned on by Sabina’s sexiness before a camera — her yielding to it and commanding it all at once — and by Sabina’s pointing the camera back at her nakedness; we’re given to understand she doesn’t even like being naked. (Tereza needs to feel undefined.)
In Prague, when she tries to even the score with Tomas the perpetual cocksman, she’s clenched and frightened, and she insists that her partner pull back the curtains that are hung around his room to show that he’s hiding nothing. Kaufman lets us register the contrast with Sabina, who, on the train, enjoyed the wiliness — the role-playing and duplicity — of the pretending-to-be-asleep voyeur. Tereza hides behind frames without recognizing them as such until she’s urged out; Sabina propels herself into new situations, then puts frames around them and moves on.
Tereza can’t bring herself to enjoy the performance aspect of sex; Tomas and Sabina work costumes and playacting into their sex, and enjoy posing before mirrors. Binoche’s being so “available” yet not an accomplished performer jibes with this. What she is as an actress (at least here) in relation to Day Lewis and Olin parallels what Czechoslovakia (history! tragedy! a peasant culture!) can mean to an American: pure soul.
Much later, when Tereza and Tomas have retreated to the Czech countryside and go with their farming buddies to a country bar, she’s so at ease that she dances and teases and flirts; she’s consciously vamping Tomas. It’s the first time we have seen her do any active seducing; this is the only environment in which she feels secure enough to play. In California — all glorious surfaces — Sabina paints a picture of the ocean: she consciously, knowing the effort and what it costs, erects not a wall but a scrim between her and sorrow/fate. She needs to be able to experience her emotions as fully as possible yet not to be stymied by them. She thrives on what disconnectedness makes possible. (Only death rends the scrim.)
Kaufman’s movie is like a Janacek work, the filmmaker incorporating “Czechoslovakia” into his film as Janacek incorporated folk songs into his music, as Tomas incorporates Tereza into his life. It’s funny and touching that, in the movie, “Czechoslovakia” is as created (from France and other places, as well as from newsreels) as “Tereza” is. We’re not really seeing “soul,” we’re seeing an actress; we’re not really seeing Czechoslovakia, we’re seeing locations put to work. The doctored photographs that show up — the woman’s father or husband with Brezhnev; Erland Josephson with Kennedy and Khrushchev — and the whole passage about the Russian invasion, which is a kind of extended-through-time doctored photograph, have a special poignancy in this context. Kaufman is using movie fakery to make the emotions more immediate. He lets us realize, when Sabina puts her head out the train window, that Olin is performing in front of a blue screen and facing fake rain, but the effect is the enhancement of the character’s (and the actress’) impassioned recklessness.
Kaufman uses the newsreel footage similarly. When Tarkovsky and Wenders use newsreel footage, you can sense — despite what the filmmakers seem to be saying (which is usually about the need to leave the confines of your own head) — that what they’re doing is working the newsreel footage into their mournful and virtually totally self-reflexive fiction. Ie., their conceptual thinking is more important to them than the historical events the footage, in whatever way, portrays.
Kaufman’s approach liberates libido; he works the story and the characters into the newsreel. He alters the newsreel footage and lets us know it: we have the fun of trying to figure out how it’s been altered even as we register the awfulness of the invasion, and experience the rupture it represents in Czechoslovakian history (and in the film). For Kaufman, using this footage is a tribute art (as a part of life) pays to life (which includes art even as it washes it away and moves on). Though Kaufman never shows Tomas and Tereza rising into the heavens, the movie’s final image — it’s of a road through a forest, seen through the front windshield of a moving truck; the image grows brighter, suggesting pure radiance — may be the most beautiful Ascension ever put on film. What the light elicits depends on us.
- Jack Mathews talked with Philip Kaufman the year “Unbearable Lightness” was released.
- A more recent interview with him.
- Terrence Rafferty visits with Lena Olin.
- The movie’s trailer.
©1988 by Ray Sawhill