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In late 60s Prague, Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a brilliant brain surgeon and a master of seduction; a libertine who craves sexual satisfaction without the burdens of commitment or love. Sabina (Lena Olin) understands her lover's "lightness of being" more than anyone and they share a blissful union that is disturbed only when Tomas meets Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a sensitive beauty who cannot comprehend how anyone can make love without being in love. Her devotion to Tomas awakens dormant feelings in the young man that will forever change their lives but their very existence is challenged when Russian tanks roll into the city and Tomas must face the consequences when an anti-communist article he once wrote without much conviction returns to haunt him.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Some critics adored it for its complex mix of politics and love; some were seduced by its sensuality and everyone agreed that the acting was impeccable. One of surprisingly few dissenters dismissed it as "aimlessly trashy" and it might be possible that Milan Kundera's acclaimed novel can be read in the time it takes to either endure or snooze through it. Of course the harshest critics of them all had the final say when the not always discerning general public steadfastly stayed away.

In box-office terms, the film was an unmitigated flop that helped flip Orion Pictures into bankruptcy. And yet it's easy to see how the critics were conned by one of those rare American films (shot in Geneva and Lyon, filling in for Prague) with an international cast that has a European permissiveness towards sex and a preponderance of inequitable all-girl nudity that one usually associates with subtitles.

Here we have art-house with artifice in one key character who is so impossible to believe that the house of cards topples down, reducing the painstaking build-up to an untidy pile. In the beginning, a title card ("there lived a young doctor named Tomas") promises a saucy sex romp. These first impressions intensify when Tomas emerges from surgery and urges the next available nurse to "take off your clothes."

It's a phrase that Tomas will repeat, often, in the next few laborious hours that voyeurs will anticipate with glee. Tomas is a slut - it's unfair that the word should be exclusive to females, when there's no male equivalent - but Tomas rationalises his rakish ways with a notion that the joys of the flesh should not be burdened by love in the heart.

Sabina shares his free spirit and "understood him best" but their blissful bump and grind is doomed to coitus interruptus when coquettish Tereza comes to town. They meet at a remote rural outpost where the love-starved Tereza waits on tables. Tomas already has a sly eye on her when he visits the café, book in hand, but Tereza is transfixed. "Nobody here reads;" she squeals as if witnessing The Resurrection; "nobody here discusses anything!" Tereza tails him to Prague (God knows how), we presume for some cerebral stimulation, but when he opens the door it's "take off your clothes" and before the rumble of Russian tanks impinge on the party it's more repetitive rutting and then "marry me."

Hmmm; by now we suspect that things won't end that well! It was thought that Kundera's introspective novel, which detached a narrator from the three central characters, was unfilmable and the fact that Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) was unable to condense Kundera's difficult work into an opus of less than three hours convinces me that it is. Kaufman dispenses with the narrator, but clumsily inserts his words into the mouths of his players. "I fight for lightness but I sometimes find myself pursuing heaviness," Tomas says cryptically. And we see Tereza, tormented by his womanising, lying in bed and whimpering as she awakes from a bad dream, pounding herself in the head. She dreamt of Tomas making love to another woman. "And I had such pain from seeing you that I started to pierce needles under my fingernails to stop the pain in my heart." Such blatant staging, intent on turning Tereza into a tragic and sympathetic figure, actually works in reverse and there's no getting close to Tomas or Sabina, who disappears for long stretches to wreak havoc with a wedded Swiss academic. "Lightness" equates to home-wrecking, it seems.

The politics of Russia's occupation of Czechoslovakia projects some powerful images; with newsreels and reconstructions of riots, ruin and blood in the streets. There is one electrifying moment when Tomas is quizzed by a sinister spook over the ironic article he wrote connecting Oedipus to the Stalinists, but in effect the politics exist only as background to the love story.

With some of the romance of cousin Zhivago and none of the passion of Reds, the effect is of something so episodic that it fails to impact on an emotional or an intellectual level. Frankly, I cared more about the fate of Karenina the family pooch (named after Tolstoy's heroine) than I did for her masters. And sure enough, Karenina is there between them in the most moving scene, which seems to have strayed from another movie, anyway. Slow paced and downbeat, it isn't exactly the unbearable experience of seeing ...one can drool over the next instalment of "take off your clothes."

Published June 10, 2004

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US (1987)

CAST: Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Lena Olin

DIRECTOR: Philip Kaufman

SCRIPT: Jean-Claude Carriere, Philip Kaufman. Based on the novel by Milan Kundera

RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes

PRESENTATION: Widescreen. Spoken languages English, Italian


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video

DVD RELEASE: June 2, 2004

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