Sunday, February 10, 2013

Kaufman Does Kundera

Sabina, Tomas, the mirror, and the bowler hat.  One erotic moment among many in the film.
Shortly after I married Jennifer, we watched Philip Kaufman's adaptation of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  I remember watching it alone at first and then encouraging Jennifer to see it with me on a repeat viewing.  I thought it was an excellent film, a sleeper of a 9, which means that it was a truly great movie but one that almost no one is likely to automatically recall 10-15 years afterwards.  This is not because it is not a memorable film, it has to do with getting lost in the passage of time with so many other good and great movies coming along.  The lack of friends who have probably seen it means it doesn't come up in conversations as the years pass, so it can easily slip from memory.  Kundera actually wrote another excellent novel that approaches this mechanic of memory, in part.

But, like the (more famous and discussed) novel upon which it is based, I have never completely forgotten the film.  It ranks among the best, say, Top 50 films made during my lifetime.  It was my introduction to Daniel Day-Lewis, leading to a long appreciation of his elite class work, most recently praised in a viewing of Lincoln.  While Lincoln is a good film, it is not in the league with Kaufman's movie adaptation (as both writer and director) of Kundera.  Unlike Lincoln, this film does not try to accomplish too much with matters no less profound, it more effectively manages its focus and dramatic tension while still exploring the philosophical and erotic aspects of the novel.

It is, in fact, one of the best adaptations I have ever seen.  While being true to the novel, Kaufman does not attempt to follow the novel (which is non-linear in narrative style) but rather he includes a mix of direct quotations from the novel with some invented scenes and some trimming of the characters in order to achieve the exact effect of the novel.  The film is every bit as good as Kundera's work even though it is hardly remembered today.  Kundera himself, it must be admitted, did not approve of Kaufman's scripting and went so far as to make his other novels legally unadaptable.  His powerful reaction indicates the strength of Kaufman's variations on the novel.

Superb performances by Juliette Binoche as Teresa and Lina Olin as Sabina compliment Day-Lewis' brilliant portrayal of Tomas.  Like the novel, the story is fast-paced, it never drags nor even pauses for long, rather it seems to fly by as it keeps you fully invested in the characters, the complexity of the relationships, the sexuality, the politics, the ideas about Being which pop up throughout the course of its easy watching 171 minutes.  The film's length seems nowhere near its running time.  It is noteworthy that it is, in fact, a long film but a short novel coming in at a comparatively brief 314 pages.

Of course, the novel is a bit deeper in terms of what it does and a bit more sophisticated in terms of the characters.  But Kaufman makes up for this by fully representing the essentials of what Kundera tries to do with his story and by making an even more erotic film than the novel.  Kundera, being (while often lyrical) economic and precise with his prose, does not delve too deeply into description of specific sexual acts.  The film, being inherently visual, does much more here.  There are a number of well-directed sex and sexuality scenes which do not cross into the realm of crudeness or exploitation but are, rather, more like choreographed scenes from a play, with actors blocked to partially hide one another while fully assuming provocative poses and powerfully genuine moments of intercourse.  If the novel is more detailed in its philosophical aspects, the film is more detailed in the sexual aspects of the story.  This is a very sexy movie.

Jennifer and I fully enjoyed seeing this old friend together again this weekend after about 24 years.  I have watched the old VHS tape by myself at least one other time during our marriage but it had been so long ago, longer than even my last reading of the novel prior to just finishing it again (see previous post), that I had forgotten the full extent of how warm, humorous, dramatic, gentle, powerful, intimate and erotic the film adaptation is.  It is interesting how our visual memory works through time and it is wonderful how we can be surprised by a great film we have already seen several times before.

Kaufman's film is highly recommended.  Though it does not play with lightness and weight in the same way as the novel, that dialectical theme is pervasive while the characters use the rich material and pristine, energetic performances to make Kundera's words a visual reality.  This one was worth hanging on to and even has me thinking of upgrading to DVD in the near future.  I wouldn't want to lose the ability to view this film with the passage of another decade and I really would like to see the bonus features.

The movie came and went in theaters back in 1988 without me even being aware that it was ever made.  It was much more difficult for me to get information and follow the happenings of Hollywood back then in my pre-Internet reality.  Today I am aware of such things as the most serious contenders at the Sundance Film Festival.  It is easier now.  But, whether I knew about the film back then or not, it introduced itself to me at a movie rental place in my home town.  I don't recall now but seeing it on the shelf that first time was probably a bit like unexpectedly discovering that Richter painting in the High awhile back.  It probably inspired great enthusiasm upon learning that the novel I had so recently read and re-read and found so meaningful, even though it presented more questions than alleged answers, was available in a visual format. 

I was probably a bit skeptical upon the first viewing, because we all know how often the book is better than the movie.  In this case, while the book is a bit different from the movie both presentations of the work are top-notch.  It was a inspiring find for me back in 1989 just as it was this weekend as Jennifer and I both immersed ourselves in these characters and situations and ideas created by Kundera but made flesh, ask it were, by Kaufman.

Sabina poses for Teresa.  The bowler hat interestingly framed in one shot, the intimacy between the two women explored in another shot of the same sexy sequence.

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