Monday, August 30, 2010

#55: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

(Philip Kaufman, 1988)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a very long movie. This is probably the first thing you will notice when watching it. It's not unusual (especially these days, in the age of powerful and narcissistic directors) for a movie to be nearly three hours. But many of those movies don't feel like three hours, or at least seem like they need to be that long in order to tell their epic story. Before it is anything else, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a movie that feels too long. This is despite the fact that I was often entertained by the film, and would be hard-pressed to identify the scenes that Kaufman (who directed the similarly massive The Right Stuff) could afford to cut.

Actually, I think The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a rather good film, which I guess makes it stranger that I have this odd sense that it should be shorter. Roger Ebert often says that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short, and while I think that's true, I also think a mediocre movie can be made into a good movie by judicious trimming. In this case, I think a solid movie could have become a great movie at 30 minutes less running time.

Part of the reason the film feels overly long is that the scope is rather narrow. The film is essentially about three people, played wonderfully by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lena Olin, and Juliette Binoche. Olin in particular gives a subtle and beautiful performance that could be easily overlooked, but I feel she is the heart of the film, and not only because she ends up with crucial knowledge in the final, tragic sequence. The film has often been called the most erotic "art" film since Last Tango in Paris, and I was similarly unenthusiastic about the sex here, which feels either overblown or vaguely empty. It does often seem to be the case that films that are mostly about sex are rarely sexy - Eyes Wide Shut and Crash (1996) come to mind immediately. And here there is a similarly emotional undercurrent to the sex scenes that limit the possibility of arousal - not that I'm looking to interpersonal epics about the Prague Spring for turn-ons. Probably the most intense scene involves Olin and Binoche photographing each other naked. As in other scenes in the film, Kaufman rarely lingers on the nudity, entirely selecting his compositions based on visual and thematic cohesiveness. The lack of fetishization on his part makes the scene much more emotionally intense and personal, as the scene doesn't feel like it is made for anyone but these two women and the absent lover they share. This makes the arrival of Olin's married lover all the more jarring. It's quite the sequence.

As a whole, though, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which was based on a book that was generally considered "unfilmable," constantly refuses to leap from the page. The direct and indirect connections between the emotional lives of these characters and the political background upon which they operate are altogether too literary to come across successfully on screen. Furthermore, the movie's tone feels uneven, which is most likely the reason why the movie feels too long. Of course, there is also the annoying fact that these people really ought to be speaking Czech, but they obviously couldn't have gotten the funding necessary for a Czech-language version of the film.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was one of the earliest Criterion releases I can remember going out of print. It's not one I think will be particularly missed. It's a good movie, well-made, brilliantly acted, ultimately moving. But it fails to carry any real heft, despite it's fairly weighty running time.

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