Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist who wrote The Unbearable Lightness of Being, was so unhappy with the film that he vowed never to permit another adaptation of his work. He’d been closely involved with the production, but felt that the film missed the point of his book. And yet the movie was very successful, artistically, and very satisfying to viewers, including those who’d loved the book. No doubt the picture’s sensuality had a lot to do with this, along with the fine performances from Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin and Juliette Binoche.
I loved the film when I saw it, some twenty years ago, and went on to read the book, which I’ll admit was heavy going. Way too much philosophizing—and I liked Nietzsche in those days—which got in the way of the stunning insights.
This was a book that made you think. Written before the Berlin wall came down and set against the backdrop of the failed 1968 Czech rebellion against Soviet occupation known as the Prague Spring, the story was not so much about love as about betrayal.
Betrayal of your principles and betrayal of the people who love you. Betrayal not necessarily for admirable reasons. Betrayal just for the hell of it, betrayal on a whim, but isn’t it a sign of freedom, the ability to act on a whim, including the whim to give up one’s ambition and settle for nothing more than a simple, day-to-day existence?
Jean-Claude Carrière, who wrote the screenplay, said that he chose to focus on the love story, highlighting the sexual betrayal at the expense of the film’s political message. But that message comes across quite powerfully in the cinematography, where actual footage of the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague and of the once-jubilant protesters being overwhelmed by force is skillfully intercut with new material putting Day-Lewis and Binoche in the thick of things.
Binoche’s character, a photographer, learns that the documentary photos she smuggled out of the country with foreigners are being used by the authorities to identify participants in the revolt. Unwittingly, she has betrayed the heroes of the Prague Spring, and wasn’t this Kundera’s point: that personal integrity is something of a luxury and certainly not the province of citizens who live under an oppressive regime?
I’d say that director Philip Kaufman did a brilliant job of making viewers think, even without Nietzsche.