THE FOLLOWING things are kinda tough to film: Nuance, metaphor, simile, nothingness . . . and the unbearable lightness of being.
In Milan Kundera's novel, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," the characters are pawns on a complex, philosophical chessboard with Kundera's didactic commentary accompanying every move. In his adaptation, director Phil Kaufman films the pawns, even many of the moves. But without Kundera's connecting presence and voice, the result is closer to Chinese checkers than chess.
Very attractive and watchable checkers, sure. That's thanks to veteran cinematographer Sven Nykvist's images (the eyes of Ingmar Bergman for years) and Kaufman's eye for sensuality -- lovers' bodies are beautiful as they gyrate in or around beds, mirrors and swimming pools. Those bodies belong to: Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis of "My Beautiful Laundrette" fame), a licentious surgeon who likes to perform more than surgery; his soon-to-be-wife Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a sweet woman from a small town; and his mistress Sabina (Lena Olin), a painter and understanding woman.
Within this human triangle, Kaufman (cowriting with veteran Jean-Claude Carrie`re) concentrates on the emotions, the sexuality, jealousies, frustrations and deceits. But most events seem without purpose. They're arbitrary, almost irrelevant: Tereza takes up photography; Russia invades Czechoslovakia; Tomas gets in trouble for a published anti-Communist letter; Sabina goes to Switzerland; Tereza leaves Tomas; Tomas gets her back; and they buy a dog.
In the book, Kundera connects these and other events with his theme. Characters and situations are used for higher purposes than pillow swapping. (It would take the whole review to explain the book's semi-existential theme, but briefly it's egotist Kundera's guide to the free-and-easy pointlessness of life in which, no matter what we do, we become maggot meal after 80-odd years). The novel's connecting tissue is Kundera's omniscient eye -- sometimes deadly serious, sometimes light, sometimes tedious, always swooping in and out of a character's little dilemmas.
In the film, the characters and events are part of an episodic, classy soap opera, which could have been called "The Man Who Loved Women" (with the subtitle: "While Many Other Things Happened").
Certainly, most people want to judge the film "Unbearable" on its own terms, regardless of the book. But without the book's help, Kaufman and Carrie`re seem to keep Kundera's philosophy to themselves.
The three players, if you ignore the occasional accent slip (you've got an Englishman, a Frenchwoman and a Swede doing a Czech accent), give strong performances. Day-Lewis' gaunt, haunted Tomas is odd but engaging. Binoche's fresh, naive appeal is reminiscent of Isabel Rossellini's. And Olin exudes her requisite sexuality well. But their rhyme is given no reason. The same goes for many other beautiful sequences -- including the Russian attack in which 1968 documentary footage is intercut with black-and-white shots of Tomas, Tereza and others caught in the me~le'e. It's nicely done but in this film's context, it's just a Soviet invasion.
THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING (R) --
At area theaters.