Successful surgeon Tomas leaves Prague for an operation, meets a young photographer named Tereza, and brings her back with him. Tereza is surprised to learn that Tomas is already having an affair with the bohemian Sabina, but when the Soviet invasion occurs, all three flee to Switzerland. Sabina begins an affair, Tom continues womanizing, and Tereza, disgusted, returns to Czechoslovakia. Realizing his mistake, Tomas decides to chase after her.
Co-writer/director Philip Kaufman’s erotic epic, based upon Milan Kundera’s novel, centered on the themes of freedom (sexual, personal and political). It was set in the late 60s in Prague, Czechoslovakia (and then in Switzerland), with open and liberated adult sexuality and many erotic scenes although little explicit sex (it was regarded by Rolling Stone as “the most openly sexual American film in ages”). It was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography (Sven Nykvist).
It included an intriguing love triangle displayed between a playboy and two lovers (reversals of each other):
Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), a Czech Don-Juanish neuro-surgeon
Sabina (Lena Olin), a free-spirited, liberated lover and painter-artist
Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a shy, bookish, waiflike and timid provincial waitress, also a photographer – and Tomas’ wife
During the film, Tomas repeatedly and arrogantly entreated: “Take off your clothes,” initially to co-worker Nurse Katja (Pascale Kalensky) and to Tall Brunette (Consuela De Haviland) who slowly stripped for him and sat provocatively in a chair, and then to his other lovers.
In an extended love-making scene in the film’s opening, philandering Tomas was with longtime sex partner and kindred spirit Sabina (“the woman who understood him best”) when she asked him: “Don’t you ever spend a night at the woman’s place?” He answered: “Never.” She confided: “I really like you, Tomas. You are the complete opposite of kitsch. In the kingdom of kitsch, you would be a monster,” as she placed her great grandfather’s bowler hat on his head. He responded by turning her around on top of the bed so that her head hung off the side, while coupling with her legs completely spread-eagled and pointed outwards. He made her view themselves in that pose in her dressing-mirror reflection and then asked: “What am I now? A monster.” Later in the film, they continued to playfully make love with the bowler hat and their mirror images, when she asked:
“Are you only searching for pleasure, or is every woman a new land whose secrets you want to discover? You want to know what she’s going to say when she makes love? Or how she will smile? How she will whisper, groan, scream?”
He encouraged her to view herself with her distinctive bowler hat, reflected in the round mirror placed on the floor, before they succumbed to more love-making. Tomas was repeatedly torn between being dutiful to wife Tereza, and exercising his womanizing spirit with Sabina. He expressed the dichotomy to Sabina:
“If I had two lives, with one, I’d have her (Tereza) stay at my place. With the other, I’d kick her out. Then I’d compare and see which was best. But we only live once. Life’s so light. Like an outline we can’t ever fill in, or correct… make any better. It’s frightening.”
The film also included a sensual photographic session between erotic friends Tereza and Sabina – initially, Tereza photographed a nude Sabina, a long mostly dialogue-less scene during an impending thunderstorm. Afterwards Sabina ordered a reluctant and initially-hesitant Tereza: “Now it’s my turn…Take off your clothes” (using Tomas’ favorite line) as they seductively switched roles between photographer and subject, culminating in a hide-and-seek nude romp.
At one point when Tomas returned to Prague and was blacklisted with no work, Tereza took a waitressing job. She was propositioned by an engineer (Stellan Skarsgaard) – and regretfully accepted a one-time unfaithful sexual liaison with him. In the end, Tereza and Tomas found marital bliss in the countryside, where they befriended a commune leader and his pet pig.
As the film concluded, Sabina learned some tragic “bad news” – the death of her two friends after a night of dancing when the brakes on their truck failed and they were killed instantly (just before their deaths, Tomas told Tereza what he was thinking: “I’m thinking how happy I am”).
Director: Philip Kaufman
Tags: Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Olbrychski, Derek de Lint, Donald Moffat, Erland Josephson, Free movies 1988, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin, Pavel Landovský, Stellan Skarsgård, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Unbearable Lightness of Being Online, Tomek Bork