The Unbearable Lightness of Being

(Philip Kaufman, USA, 1988)


Philip Kaufman is a director without what we have come to recognise (in however woolly a fashion) as personality. He is one of those filmmakers notable not for who he is (an auteur), but rather for something he does.

Kaufman is a body snatcher, a simulator. Almost every project he undertakes seems poised ominously in relation to a pre-existing film, filmmaker or film-type. Thus he works over an old classic (Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1978], appropriately enough); a grand, dead genre (The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, 1972); a current sub-genre (The Wanderers, 1979); or a cultural sensibility (Hawksian heroics in The Right Stuff, 1983). The tone is one neither of rapt homage (Lucas) nor righteous critique (Altman).

Instead, a coolness, a steely sense of satisfaction at having reproduced precisely all the right surface moves. No soul, perhaps. But something curious and certainly postmodern nonetheless: a nagging sense of the abyss between the original and the copy, an inadvertent exaggeration of all the now/then or here/there differences that undermine the naive gesture of reproduction.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a fake European Art Movie, made by an American. It is a completely monstrous, in fact obscene artefact. One has never seen anything so horrifically obsequious: the Czech accents, the actors and cinematographer from Ingmar Bergman's troupe, the young Godardian actress who is made up like Anna Karina, the three hours of running time ... and the endless arch gazes under heavy eyebrows, the pithy quotable lines ("Life is rather ... light"), the dreamy autumnal colours, the symbolic inserts, the throwaway moments of Buñuelian humour presumably supplied by Buñuel's scriptwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière.

The film is truly an offense to one's memory of The Right Stuff (which was, among other things, a model adaptation, whereas this is a disgrace). Yet there is a sense in which this unbearable film, because it is so unnatural, throws into relief that cultural item we call the arthouse movie, pointing up that in fact it is a cultural item like any other, a genre like any other, an act of market exploitation like any other.

I find it hard to experience this film (cringingly) as anything but a relentless procession of art cinema gestures, signs, poses. Let's be more precise: not art cinema, which is the name of a noble ideal, an imaginary museum of great works; rather, arthouse cinema, which designates a market, a cruel reduction of that ideal.

Young Tereza (Juliette Binoche) who stands for the innocent life force (like the proletarian postie in Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice [1986]): watch her "unaffectedly" skip, stumble and blush. Passionate Artist Sabina (Lena Olin): a telling moment of pathos as she pauses before her image multiplied and splintered in the broken mirrors of her art. Suave prick Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis): follow him as identification-figure from snobbish superiority (Tereza: "I'm reading Anna Karenina by Tolstoy" Him: "Oh, that Anna Karenina") via cool understanding and resistance (politics as individualist ethics) to empathetic lovingness – a voyage from lightness to heaviness, uncommitment to commitment, and black roll-neck jumpers to loose-fitting, nature-coloured rural wear. This is an art film where the State is a table-full of old, ugly men; and liberation is expressed in a band switching from the Czech original of "The Carnival is Over" to a jazz-rock jam. And then there's the eroticism.

When I hear people fresh from this film mention eroticism – taking the opportunity to hail (as did Time magazine) its miraculous return to cinema – I feel like puking. For this is pure coffee table eroticism, of the kind served up by arthouse cinema continuously for three and a bit decades. (Given any chance, I'm sure the film's characters would gladly get down to it on a coffee table, preferably in front of a mirror, and with bowler hats on.) The film's eroticism is equally a matter of gestures, signs and poses – indomitably static and glossy. The much acclaimed scene of Sabine and Tereza's photo session, with its frisson of implied lesbianism, and its right-on assertion of a sisterly vibe which the roll-neck prick will never comprehend, is a veritable locus classicus of delicately liberal art cinema pussy-footing. No energy or heat here – just choreography.

We have also been hearing, ad nauseam, that Unbearable is a film "about" that perennial (very real and serious) chestnut of "the personal and the political" – how (in this case) love and sex interact with/reflect/are determined by larger historical forces and social contexts. The most one could truly say is that the film merely (in George Alexander's memorable phrase) "fondles the articulation" between the personal and the political, simply issuing a vague wave in the direction of the relevant connections. This, too, is something in which arthouse cinema (today Bliss [1985], Family Viewing [1987], Sammy and Rosie Get Laid [1987]) has been trading for three and a bit decades. Gaga reviewers enslaved to the arthouse ethos tend to fall straight in line, continuing the relay fondling. To do so, they deploy a barrage of smart sounding, charmingly paradoxical x-and-y equations: "a film about the inextricable, unknowable links between love and hate, art and life, rebellion and commitment, the individual and society." To say this much and then stop dead is usually bluff enough.

Kaufman himself may have spoken the first and last word on the matter when he disarmingly stated that Unbearable "is not a political film". Yet the fact is that the film itself clearly wants to have it both ways, gesturing towards the political context whilst finally elevating the personal above it as the only thing that really matters. Take the whole section concerning Tereza's adventure as a hot political photographer during the street scenes of the Prague Spring. The sound and fury of real history is there all right (in crowded long and mid shots), but over and above it is the celebration of spunky little Tereza herself (in extreme close up): seeing, daring, darting in and out of it all. Her dexterity as metteur en scène seems ominously to echo that of Kaufman himself: look at how artfully he restages famous news photos of the event, spectacularly freezing them in black and white at the moment of truth!

Tereza's photos lead to a grave consequence: they are used within the fiction to identify and imprison political dissidents. Yet this is scarcely rendered significant as a political fact; only an individual moral trauma for Tereza as she reels and faints. Then she wakes up elsewhere – the film is off on a new track, and those prisoners are but a dramatic memory, a temps fort in the flow. The political is consistently reduced to a merely spectacular backdrop. This logic is the mirror inverse of Sammy and Rosie. There, personal exchanges are viewed misanthropically as insignificant, irrelevant fumblings in the midst of state oppression and street resistance; here, the notion that "love will find a way" through the muck and chaos of the political is validated and valorised (the ending, in particular, is pure Bliss-style middle-class escapism).

Both versions of the personal/political relation seem to me equally debilitating, conservative and obscene: a certain kind of arthouse cinema in a nutshell.

MORE Kaufman: Twisted, Hemingway & Gellhorn, Rising Sun

© Adrian Martin September 1988

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search