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'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' : (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 05, 1988

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" leaves an afterimage as insistent as a flashbulb's ghost. It is a haunting, glowing thing that won't let go.

Philip Kaufman directs this eloquent adaptation of Milan Kundera's erotic novel -- a Slavic Kamasutra set within the confines of communism, and the heart. Kaufman has laid bare the narrative without sacrificing the density of Kundera's prose. What's left is the passionate story of a Czech libertine, Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), who gives up liberty for love.

It is Prague Spring, 1968. Tomas is a dashing brain surgeon whose freewheeling life style is as dizzying as the decade. In the beginning, he's as lighthearted as a hero in a French farce, happily banging bedroom doors. But the Iron Curtain is about to come down. And Tomas is about to fall in love.

Called to a small spa town to perform an operation, he meets the local beauty Tereza (Juliette Binoche), all Bambi eyes and little clogs, with "Anna Karenina" tucked under her arm. Attracted to her naivete', Tomas falls in love with Tereza, marries her and forever after is torn between his womanizing and his wife.

He continues an affair with his mistress Sabina (Lena Olin), a kindred spirit who meanwhile develops a sexually ambiguous relationship with Tereza. It's a tangled emotional landscape of messy beds and broken hearts, seen through a round robin of carefully choreographed, comic, kinky and even elegiac nude scenes.

Sabina is generous in bed and on canvas -- an artist who paints with mirrors, refractions of life. And Tereza is a photographer, trapping images with her camera. When the Soviets invade Prague, Tereza photographs scenes of the resistance, hoping to smuggle them out to the West. But the KGB seizes her film and uses it to identify resisters. Along with other sympathizers, she is arrested and interrogated. "Don't you know we love you?" asks a Soviet, echoing her reproaches to Tomas. She is released, and the three all end up in Geneva, where each makes a crucial emotional choice.

The performances are all sympathetic, which is absolutely essential for Day-Lewis, as Tomas would be vile without the actor's sweetness and compassion. Both actresses are glamorous, mysterious, Euro-exotic -- two sides of the same coin. Tereza embodies love and Sabina sex, and Binoche and Olin make alluring opposites. It's an intoxicating trio.

A marriage of art house and Hollywood, "Unbearable Lightness" has the glitzy garter belt look of "Cabaret" and the somber Angst of Bergman. Puckered lips and rounded bottoms are intercut with invasion-era newsreels of bodies under sheets. Artful compositions, with hats off to Magritte, are set to the eerie arpeggios of Leos Janacek's score.

It's an atmosphere that stirs the heart, the hormones and the head. Allegorically, Tomas is torn between the two women, as he is between East and West, anarchy and order. And the movie is held together by the constant tension between people and nations, the power of love and the love of power.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is rated R for nudity and adult situations

Copyright The Washington Post

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