Milan Kundera invited revision—plenty of it—when he admonished the ambitious adapters of The Unbearable Lightness of Being to "eliminate, eliminate." It would seem a clear enough command, the authorial equivalent of the director's cut. His mistake, perhaps, was amending it. When asked by the men determined to make the film what to leave in, what was the heart of the novel, Kundera replied, "The love story, of course."
Converting a novel dense with ideas into a thing of silver and celluloid is no mean feat. Twice, the most celebrated novel of ideas of the century, Nineteen Eighty-Four, has been tried and has failed on the big screen. Dead earnest, sincere efforts both, but missing the humanity George Orwell wrote into the heart of his dystopian nightmare.
So, the love story? Of course?
How many of the 400,000 Americans who have purchased hard- and soft-cover translations of the emigre Czech's novel since it debuted in 1984 and actually read it would distill their tortured, mesmerized, baffled, or enchanted encounters with that elusive, metaphysical, deeply political stretch of prose to "the love story?" If the answer is none, then why advise the movie makers to do it?
We'll never know. The producer and director of Unbearable Lightness, Saul Zaentz and Philip Kaufman, took Kundera's advice—to the letter. They shoved the politics, the ideas, the difficult parts of his story—which describes the spiritual collapse of Czechoslovakia after Russian tanks crushed the 1968 Prague Spring—into the backdrop. They reduced the moral scenario of the novel—the state's violation of private lives—into state-of-the-art rear-projection, magically superimposing our hero and heroine onto stock footage of the invasion. Up front is the love story, with all the novel's dangerous eroticism (Kundera updated Orwell's sex crimes) faithfully, often exquisitely, transposed into luscious flesh and bones. Far, far behind is the purpose, the reason for those lusty lovers and their emblematic passions: to spark a thought or two.
The first two "chapters" (they are only two-and-a-half pages long) of Kundera's book are about Frederick Nietzsche, not Tomas, the brainy Lothario who recites the story's meandering monologue. Invoking Nietzsche's myth of "eternal return," the narrator sets up the book's oblique title, the gist of which is a paradox, a brain-teasing trope. If we only get one life to live, inquires Kundera, when can we possibly learn to live it? How can any action have meaning if it is just a blind first try, blundering history repeating itself? It can't. Hence lightness: the helpless reverie, giddy anomie of a man cut off from himself, his memory, his will, and—here's where the tanks roll in—his culture and his country.
Try getting that across in a screenplay. Kaufman and his collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière (who skillfully articulated so many of Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel's philosophical kinks) don't even try. They commence with the easiest part of Tomas to get a grip on: his epic womanizing.
"Take off your clothes," is Tomas's favorite refrain, to which he sometimes attaches the amusing kicker, "Don't worry, I'm a doctor." He is a doctor, a brain surgeon, considerably younger in the person of actor Daniel Day-Lewis than the middle-aged, once-married narrator in the book. He is also, we are led to believe, a member of the intelligentsia. Not a card-carrier, perhaps, but empowered with observer status. He reads books, drinks in bohemian bistros. Amid freedom's brief bloom during the so-called Prague Spring, he wears a mask of arch cyncism, as if waiting for the walls to come tumbling down so he can say, "I told you so."
Torn between the exotic sexplay (lightness?) tirelessly indulged in by his longtime mistress Sabina (Lena Olin) and the animal devotion (heaviness?) offered by his wife Tereza (Juliet Binoche), Tomas chooses both. And neither. He wants one, can't live without the other, a Casanovan dualism that purports to make him sexually irresistible. Take off your clothes! Gladly, doctor! Snapl another pallid, wanton Czech mistress unsheathes the naughty secrets of her repressed, East European desire.
Day-Lewis (whose mannered elan served him better in Room With a View and My Beautiful Laundrette) strikes a handsome pose in the retro-intellectual look his costumers have conceived for him: skinny black suits, black turtleneck, black Ray Bans, a three-inch high eraser head of jet-black hair. Undeniably cool he is, but it's impossible to see why women, especially the two important ones, are so magnetized by his supercilious, superficial attitude.
The two women are Day-Lewis's stark opposite: complicated, intriguing embodiments of feminine mystique. The most memorable scene in the film is strictly entre elles. Tomas's wife and mistress have acquiesced to an amicable rivalry by the time Tereza, a photographer, arrives at her rival's studio, an erotic playpen, to take a session of nude shots with Sabina as her model. Having long fantasized about being present at the scene of one of Tomas's transgressions, she exacts a quiet vengeance for his adultery through the lens of her camera. Sabina then steals the camera and puts a blushing Tereza on the receiving end of the lens. The two actresses in tandem evoke a mood of fragile intimacy and taut sensuality, a scene that isn't remotely obscene. Amazingly, this is a Hollywood film whose god is Eros not Pornos.
Keep Unbearable Lightness's point of origin in mind. By Hollywood standards, it is long (the book can be read faster than the movie's 2 hours, 47 minutes) and serious in a way that American movies seldom are. It is meticulously filmed (by Sven Nykvist) in iron-curtain grays that aren't always pretty but bristle with integrity.
But Kaufman's plodding, dutiful seriousness is hardly ever broken by a shaft of the novel's "lightness." The tanks come. The principals exile themselves to Switzerland. Tomas and Tereza return to the newly disciplined Czech state and become subjects of Big Brother. Ultimately, the couple beats a bucolic retreat to a farm run by an eccentric rustic and his amusing pig Mefisto. The events of the novel are dutifully observed but robbed of meaning.
"In the kingdom of kitsch, you would be a monster," Sabina tells Tomas during one of their outré tussles, quoting verbatim from Kundera. (Tomas, the cynic and realist, professes kitsch to be his great bugbear.) But the visceral crescendo of emotion Kundera builds in his long account of the death of Tomas and Tereza's beloved dog Karenin is brusquely reduced in movie time to a scant few minutes. The event Kundera dispensed with so offhandedly—the death of Tomas and Tereza—Kaufman inflates into a lachrymose finale that fairly drowns in kitsch.
When Kundera asked for "the love story," did he expect everything else to be shucked down the memory hole?
Richard Marin is television critic for the Washington Times.