The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988)
It is 1968 in Prague, just before the tanks came in. Dubcek is prevailing over the party line apparatchiks, who seem helpless against a suddenly liberal press, dirty dancing in nightclubs, and jazz bands who mock "The Internationale." Also, people seem to be having quite a lot of sex, especially if they look like Daniel Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis plays Tomas, a doctor with little time for surgery. He is essentially apolitical - though he certainly likes the nightclubs. Mainly he wants to have quite a lot of sex with women. Initially, he does not appear to be torn between Sabina (Lena Olin), the worldly sultry temptress, and Tereza (Juliette Binoche), the country waitress who follows him back to Prague. He wants them both, even after he marries Tereza. And he wants others.
Then the tanks come. Tomas, Sabina and Tereza all flee successfully to Switzerland and end up in Geneva. It doesn't seem so tough to leave your native country (how the hell did they get to Switzerland?). You can have sex with each other more easily, and with other people as well, and the people you find are better educated and better dressed, and there seems to be lots of very good wine. Tomas gets another good job, and Sabina gets a very fashionable art/design job with appropriately suave and fashionable colleagues.
Let's pause at this juncture. It must seem that I dislike and distrust this movie. I don't dislike it completely; I actually admire it in some respects. I've always thought Philip Kaufman was underrated (his 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, especially). He does a great job here. I don't know whether the producers were actually permitted to shoot in Prague, even in 1987. But the Czech scenes are extremely well shot and staged - the apartments and streets have the right mix of decay and bare beauty, without romance. Even Geneva is restrained. The sex scenes are energizing, shot and acted beautifully, choreographed beautifully, yet don't seem "artsy." The music is unusually intelligent. And the performances are, mostly, very fine. Binoche is particularly good. She starts out as the winsome gamine, managing to channel the young Audrey Hepburn in the first half of the film; she registers pretty nicely the different levels of distress, abandonment, and humiliation that her character passes through. Lena Olin is very good at avid, steamy sexuality and betrayal.
So what's the problem? The ostensible theme here is undercut by the screenplay, which strains toward a resolution that doesn't fit with what has gone before, and by Day-Lewis's performance. The film is interested in portraying him as an irresistible hunk of man, a complete whore, what every woman wants. He plays that spectacularly well - leaving no room for an actual living character or character development. Late in the film, slutboy begins to show character and principle, and I didn't believe it for a minute.
A film that inserts documentary footage of actual people getting run over by tanks. or getting killed by Russian soldiers (expertly done, by the way), creates some historical and political obligations for itself. Unfortunately, the subtext that shines through the text is this: Tomas and his lovers are trivial, irresponsible aesthetes. They leave the Czech Republic because the lifestyle they prefer will no longer be possible there. Standing up to Communist tyranny means, chiefly, preserving the right to fuck indiscriminately, the right to wriggle your crotch in semipublic, possibly the right to hair care products. Russian officials are very ugly, with bad teeth; submitting to them is therefore unthinkable. Only Czech freedom can facilitate an incipient modeling career. I think that this film, despite best intentions, inadvertently recreates a Brezhnev-era argument against Czech autonomy - that they'll just become rampantly hedonistic and capitalistic. Arggh!
Bresson was a deeply religious filmmaker. For me, entering one of his films is like entering into a meditation, or a service. In this unique, austere interpretation of the Arthurian mythos, there isn't a shot or a camera movement that doesn't represent thought - and love. There are dozens of compositionally brilliant shots, and any number of images which represent mysteries, some of them resolved at the end by other images. Others are still mysteries to me; on a second viewing I could work harder.
Many good films make the viewer work at character and plot, make you think so that you can figure out the film's point, or doctrine. Bresson makes you work at figureing out the action, too. His camera may give you the action, but from an oblique or occluded vantage point. In a tournament sequence, we don't get a panoramic view; we're looking up at the proceedings from the ground, and we see mostly the legs and hooves of horses. (Bresson adores the birds and beasts of the field, and the forests too.) The camera seems to caress what it shows you. I think only a genius can project his view of earth and heaven into such immanent detail.
This is a film about competing forms of love and duty - to love God, to love a woman, to love your king and queen. The tension between those duties creates terrible agony, but the actors' faces only hint at that. (Bresson chose amateur actors with plain faces that nevertheless reveal great beauty.) The images tell the story. And Bresson's ironic recasting of the great myth - Camelot is a drab place to which a handful of defeated knights return, defeated in their search for the Holy Grail - opens a world of implication. Guinevere is shot in poses that suggest the Madonna. Is Lancelot really a Lucifer? Knights' skeletons, armor draped over the bones, are hung on trees; other knights' sides are pierced. I know very little about the Arthurian legends, and carry not nearly enough Christian sense in my head to apprehend this film completely. On a first viewing, I can only begin to see what the director is up to, but I do begin to see.
Bresson was an incomparable genius. When I see his films I mourn for cinematic art. His work stands as a rebuke to the mediocre, the meretricious, the derivative, even the imperfect. It shows what we could accomplish in film, what artists rarely conceive of doing. No budget, no professional actors, scarcely any music - only pure revelation.