The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

This is a movie that has been alternatively labeled a masterpiece and a pretentious art film, and that fact alone probably tells you what kind of movie it is. Quick hint: no car crashes.
It takes place in the famous Prague Spring. In syncopation with the cultural changes in the West in the late 60's, Czechoslovakia was experiencing a great flowering in 1968. Prague had developed its own kind of hands-off socialism, and in that glorious spring, the hearts of the Czechs were filled with the certainly that they could break away from the Soviet Union and recapture their freedom. They thought there was nothing Russia could do to stop them, and that the West would not allow it even if Russia wanted to stop them. They were feeling free from the heavy burden of communist oppression, and they were able to begin taking love and freedom for granted. Their hearts were light.


There was a lot of nudity. Juliette Binoche showed breasts, buns, and bush close-ups in two scenes. Olin showed breasts and buns frequently, and has hints of bush here and there. Pascale Kalensky as a nurse and one of Tomas' conquests shows breasts, Consuelo De Haviland shows breasts and buns as another of his conquests, and several woman show full frontal in a Binoche fantasy sequence.

The lightest hearts of all belonged to Tomas, a surgical casanova, and Sabina, a free-spirited artist in the true Bohemian tradition. Their theory of love includes complete lightness - no commitments, no jealousy, nothing but joyful sex. Tomas never even spends the night with any woman after sex.

The movie uses these two parallel developments, the political and the personal, to show how the lightness disappears.

Russia did not allow the Czechs to break away. Just as they did with Hungary in the 1950's, the Russians sent division after divison of tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague, and sent more divisions to secure the Western Czech border. The carefree lives of the Czechs were shattered, and the West watched newsreel footage of the Czech's trying to use flowers to counter Russian tanks (Ghandi wouldn't have had much success against the Russians. They would have run him over.), or stampeding toward the border before it gets secured. The Russian hearts remain untouched.

Tomas is caught in this political whirlwind. Several plot developments lead him from the summit of his surgical skills to a career as a window washer, with no passport and no options, and not even any freedom to speak his mind in the new Russian crackdown. While Tomas loses his position in society and his economic freedom, he is also becoming gradually more involved with a waitress he met in a small spa town. She follows him to Prague, gets him to put her up for the night, then gets him to let her move in, and then finally proposes to him and won't take no for an answer. And so our Tomas gradually loses all his freedom. His time is not his own, he can't travel, his thoughts are censored, he is working a menial job, and he finds that the woman he sleeps with is always there all night. How does this get reconciled? Well, I guess you'll have to watch it to see that final piece of the puzzle.

I like this movie very much, perhaps because I can understand the Prague Spring so immediately. It is the ultimate symbol for crushed hope in the second half of the 20th century. The Czechs were giddy with freedom one moment, despondent and fearful the next. One of my good friends was born in that Spring, just across the border in Austria, after his parents snuck out hidden in the luggage compartment of a tourist bus. I read Kundera's novel many years ago, liked it, but wondered how a disjointed interior monologue could be transferred to film. To Philip Kaufman's credit, he really did a great job of capturing the essence of the book in a more coherent and sequential narrative

The title has another meaning. Well, maybe several more, but clearly this one. The wife (the omnipresent Juliette Binoche) is not someone who can take everything lightly. She carries the world on her shoulders, and takes every one of his infidelities very hard, and is so happy when he is jealous. She's just made that way. Tomas isn't, and his "lightness" is unbearable to her.

Director Kaufman is in interesting fella, to say the least. Harvard Law grad who became a pretty damned good screenwriter. Wrote a couple little pictures you might have heard of, name of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Outlaw Josie Wales. Then he turned out some pretty good directorial efforts, like The Right Stuff. Good resume, right? But totally mainstream. Then, out of nowhere, he decides to become the erotic art baron. He did Unbearable Lightness and Henry and June back to back, and then Quills, his biopic of that rascal, The Marquis de Sade. Hank & June was rated NC-17 (the first film ever to receive that rating, I believe), and Unbearable Lightness had to be near the upper limits of "R" as well.

The three leads, Lena Olin, Juliette Binoche and Daniel Day-Lewis, are cast beautifully in their roles. It's hard to imagine any other actors in the roles after watching them, especially Binoche as the needy, sensitive wife whose gentle soul and intrinsic goodness always brings back the wandering Tomas.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • widescreen anamorphic: 1.85:1. Gorgeous transfer.

  • Criterion collection. The DVD also includes a feature-length commentary (and this is one long feature- 172 minutes) from Kaufman, the head screenwriter, and Lena Olin.

Let me also point out here that this movie is filmed exceptionally well (Sven Nyquist, the king of cinematography, was in charge), the DVD is beautifully rendered with vibrant colors.

It is a great DVD with a great full-length commentary, and I recommend it highly, but it is very pricey as I write this.

There are so many crap movies out there, that we should treasure one as good as this, especially when it also has this much nudity. Rent it and keep it for a couple of nights. I actually bought a copy, despite the price. I'm one of those loonies who thinks it's a masterpiece, and it's one of my favorite films to watch again and again.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) was made before the breakup of the Soviet Union, and told the very politically controversial story of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. The novel was very political as well as philosophical, and had a narrative style that many thought made it impossible to make into a film but, by focusing on a young doctor and womanizer, Tomas, his wife (Juliette Binoche) and his bevy of conquests (most notably Lena Olin), they were able to develop a linear story line that was, in fact, cinematic. Although you would swear much of the film was shot in Prague, the novel was far too controversial for permission to film in Eastern Europe, and was mainly filmed in France and Switzerland.

While it was an American production, much of the cast and crew were European, and the film has the pace and sensibilities of a European film. Despite the historical facts of the Russian invasion, which unmercifully crushed what had looked like freedom for the Czechs, and the fact that this is a tragic love story, the film contains much humor, and is mostly light in tone. Performances were wonderful all around, and the incorporation of actual footage of the Russian invasion gave an air of authenticity to act two. Lena Olin was the sexual counterpart to Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis). Both saw sex as a very different thing from love, and used it as one of the few expressions of freedom left to them. Binoche was provincial, naive, doted on Tomas, and tended toward jealousy.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: close to four stars. Ebert 4/4, Maltin 3.5/4.

  • Academy award nominations for script and cinematography.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.4, just a hair too low to make the Top 250.
  • With their dollars ... $10 million domestic - an art house hit, but not much by mainstream standards.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "this film is an A-. The only negative I can think of is that you may find it actionless, tending somewhat toward the arty, but you'll probably forgive that because of the emotional richness and sexy nudity." Tuna says, "This is an A-, appealing to people who would not normally like this sort of film. The film held my interest for the entire 171 minutes of running time, despite an almost actionless third act"

Return to the Movie House home page