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12 November, 2005

Review: 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' (1988)

I wrote this series of rather disjointed thoughts about The Unbearable Lightness of Being several months ago (July?), but somehow never went back to redraft a coherent review.  I don't know when I'll find the time/motivation to do that, so I'll just post it as-is.

I think I'd recommend this film; I did like it, but I wouldn't rate it as a favourite. The acting was good, with a well-known cast looking very young (especially Juliette Binoche). Daniel Day-Lewis looked as self-satisfied as always (to be fair, the character demanded that), and I've always found Lena Olin attractive, but in the cases of both her and Binoche, their attraction is a matter of poise and apparent life experience, so I think both have improved with age. The Binoche of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' isn't the Binoche of 'Chocolat' or, in particular, 'Three Colours: Blue'. Maybe the character of Thereza demanded a certain gaucheness, but age seems more likely.

In order to get the most out of certain films, viewers need to put in some effort, but there's a fine line between either patronisingly spoon-feeding an audience, with every emotional nuance stated outright, or leaving too much for the audience to infer. Unfortunately, I felt this was to close to the latter. Many of the most important insights into the motivations and thoughts of the characters were conveyed by little more than meaningful glances. One sequence, in which Thereza and Sabine photograph one another, then Franz arrives unexpectedly, was done particularly well, and I think I grasped the intended messages, but the apparent purpose of other scenes eluded me.
Consequently, I could understand how some viewers, perhaps more accustomed to mainstream, plot-led movies (sorry; that sounds patronising!) might find this an unrewarding, boring film – it's more about people than events, and I'd agree that the plot alone is insufficient to sustain interest.

Another potentially negative point: it was 171 minutes long. I doubt the character development could have been compressed much further, but I can't deny that it did feel like nearly three hours.

One reason I chose to watch this film was that I visited Prague in June, but in retrospect it was rather foolish to expect that a film set in Czechoslovakia at the time of the 1968 Russian invasion and released in 1988, the year before the fall of Communism there, would have been actually filmed in Prague. I've since discovered that it was filmed in France (plus Geneva and the USA, for the scenes set there), with artificial backdrops, set dressing (e.g. the distinctive red Prague street signs) and similar locations (e.g. a flight of steps somewhat resembling the Zamecke schody). However, I'm certain that some brief sections, perhaps accounting for a minute in total, were filmed in Prague, presumably without government knowledge of their intended use.

The inspiration for this review was a technical factor: the overall look, primarily dictated by the film emulsion (I think; I know very little about analogue colour grading). Though filmed in the 1980s, the picture quality mimicked that common in the 1970s; in particular, the colour cast seemed a bit too blue, which wasn't entirely flattering to skin tones. I presume it was a deliberate effect, rather than the producer having simply bought a load of old film cheap! I wonder whether it was done to seamlessly integrate footage from a number of sources – those images of Prague, perhaps, and the genuine documentary footage of the invasion. Maybe it was stylistic, for atmosphere, in which case I thought it interfered with suspension of disbelief. Maybe it was totally accidental, or even merely a poor transfer to DVD.

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