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Picks and Pans Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being

updated 02/15/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/15/1988 01:00AM

A handsome surgeon cheats on his gorgeous wife with dozens of women, one a kinky artist who makes love on mirrors wearing only her grandfather's bowler hat. Got your interest? Good. But there's more to this bold, imaginative work than sex. The surgeon is a Czech, the time is 1968, and the Soviets have just invaded his country. The doctor departs for a cushy hospital spot in Switzerland, but his wife, tired of his infidelities, returns to Prague. Soon after, so does he—trading the "lightness" of freedom for the "heaviness" of commitment. His wife's faithfulness has touched him, changed him. Back home he loses his practice when he won't recant his critical views of Soviet tyranny. He becomes a window washer, later a truck driver. "Haven't you noticed?" he asks his remorseful wife. "I've been happy here." This nearly three-hour film grapples with the complex, compelling interplay of politics and personal relationships. Director and co-screenwriter Philip (The Right Stuff) Kaufman adapted Czech author Milan Kundera's 1984 novel of ideas into a conventional narrative film that, despite its occasional slack moments, shows an uncanny knack for pitting sexual heat against the dark chill of despotism. Kundera (since 1975 an émigré living in France) writes in a fever, zigzagging through time in ways a movie (at least this movie) cannot. Still, the film builds inexorably, thanks to a cast that could not be bettered. After dazzling critics and public alike last year with two diverse supporting performances (the snob fiancé in A Room With a View and the punk tough in My Beautiful Laundrette), Britain's Daniel Day Lewis earns star stature with his finely shaded acting as the surgeon who risks entrapment for love. Sweden's Lena Olin is sensuous and intoxicating as the painter-mistress who must betray her lovers, her family and her country to feel free. But the knockout is Juliette Binoche, unknown outside her native France. As the jealous wife who inadvertently brings her husband to ruin, she delivers a performance of haunting beauty and sorrow. Erotically and politically charged, this film speaks eloquently of love in the shadow of oppression. Kundera's voice is heard. (R)

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