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The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Special Edition

Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) has many women. He finds them readily available — after all he is both handsome and a brain surgeon to boot, and the relaxed social mores of 1960s Prague encourage all kinds of freedom. Nurses and patients are eager to satisfy his whims, but the woman Tomas favors most is Sabina (Lena Olin). Like Tomas, Sabina takes a light-hearted approach to sex. Neither wants to complicate their enjoyment of the act with feelings of love, and their relationship is defined by their mutual detachment as they prefer to have sex in front of mirrors while Sabina wears her great-great grandfather's hat. But despite Tomas's proclivity for casual engagements, he can't resist Tereza (Juliette Binoche), the new woman in his life who threatens to redefine his attitude. She's a sweet, naïve country girl who feels life deeply, and before he can react she moves in with him and convinces him to marry. But even in marriage Tomas treats the situation with the same flip denial he uses to ignore the rising political situation with the Soviet Union, and he continues to see Sabina and any other woman who bats an eyelid. But then the tanks roll in, and Czechoslovakia's "Socialism with a human face" is smothered by the invading Russian troops, forcing each member of this disjointed love triangle to reconcile their personal philosophies with the world around them. Working from the novel by Milan Kundera, director Philip Kaufman and co-writer Jean-Claude Carriere's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) is epically intimate. At nearly three hours' length, and with its sweeping political backdrop, Lightness is the key word, in that the film manages to breezy in its running time. It succeeds by viewing this chaotic world in micro, showing how people create the weight in their lives to make it livable. These are modest people in the middle of one of the most tumultuous eras, and it's interesting how the three have their own reactions to the seizure of their homelands. For Sabina, it's easier to relocate, and ultimately to settle in America, but for Sabina home is still Czechoslovakia, which leads both her and eventually Tomas to return like prodigal children. It's a dense text, but never confusing, and through it Kaufman has crafted one hell of a sexy, melancholic, and subtle film, to which the filmmakers also manage to weave footage of the real events of the Czech invasion with footage of the actors that gives a seamless reality to the proceedings. This was Kaufman's follow up to his peerless The Right Stuff, and he displays the lyricism that has made projects as diverse as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Wanderers so engaging. This sense of poetry feels most at home in this work, with such indelible images as old men playing chess in a swimming pool gracefully inserted in to the whole. Few films have been as successful weaving sex (often a cinematic stumbling block) and politics into a coherent narrative, and Kaufman's adaptation is still a stunning achievement, a truly adult film. Warner Home Video offers the third iteration of The Unbearable Lightness of Being on DVD, and with more supplements than the Criterion release (let alone the bare-bones MGM version). The feature is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with the original Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Held over from the Criterion release is the commentary featuring Kaufman, co-writer Carriere, editor Walter Murch, and Olin, as well as the theatrical trailer. Meanwhile, new to the set is the short documentary "Emotional History: The Making of The Unbearable Lightness of Being," which features Murch, Kaufman, Carriere, and producer Saul Zaentz (30 min.). Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr/DSH

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