The Unbearable Lightness of Being (film)

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Unbearable lightness of being poster.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Produced by Bertil Ohlsson
Paul Zaentz
Saul Zaentz
Written by Milan Kundera (novel)
Jean-Claude Carrière
Philip Kaufman
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis
Juliette Binoche
Lena Olin
Derek de Lint
Erland Josephson
Pavel Landovský
Music by Mark Adler
Cinematography Sven Nykvist
Edited by Walter Murch
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release dates
  • February 5, 1988 (1988-02-05)
Running time
171 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $17,000,000
Box office $10,006,806 (USA)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a 1988 American film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Milan Kundera, published in 1984.[1][2] Director Philip Kaufman and screenplay writer Jean-Claude Carrière show Czechoslovak artistic and intellectual life during the 1968 Prague Spring of socialist liberalization through the invasion by four Warsaw-Pact countries led by the Soviet Union, and subsequent coup that ushered in hard-line communism. It portrays the moral, political, and psycho-sexual consequences for three bohemian friends: a surgeon, and two female artists with whom he has a sexual relationship.


The Unbearable Lightness of Being introduces Czech brain surgeon Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), a lothario who is a successful medical doctor in Communist Czechoslovakia. His lover, Sabina (Lena Olin), is an equally care-free artist. One day, Dr Tomas leaves Prague to operate on a man in a spa town. There, he meets the waitress Tereza (Juliette Binoche), who dreams of escaping her small town life. She follows him to Prague and cohabits with him, complicating Tomas's extra-domestic sexual affairs.

Tomas asks Sabina to help Tereza find work as a photographer. Tereza is fascinated and jealous as she grasps that Sabina and Tomas are lovers. Her distress about his polyamory is interrupted by the Soviet Army tanks invading Czechoslovakia. Amidst the confusion, Tereza photographs the Soviet invasion, then hands the rolls of film to foreigners to smuggle to the West. Facing the stultifying reality that replaced the Prague Spring, Tomas, Sabina and Tereza flee Czechoslovakia for Switzerland: first Sabina, then the hesitant Tomas and Tereza.

In Geneva, Sabina meets Franz (Derek de Lint), a married university professor: they begin a love affair. After some time, he decides to abandon his wife and family for her. After hearing the declaration, Sabina abandons Franz, feeling he would emotionally weigh her down. Meanwhile, Tereza and Tomas attempt to adapt to Switzerland, whose people Tereza finds inhospitable. When she discovers that Tomas continues womanizing, she leaves him and returns to Czechoslovakia. Upset by her leaving, Tomas follows Tereza to Czechoslovakia, where his passport is confiscated, trapping him in-country: nevertheless, his return elates Tereza. They are re-united.

In Prague, Tomas tries recovering his old brain surgeon hospital job, but the Soviet-backed régime considers him politically incorrect and prevents his re-employment. Before the invasion, Tomas wrote an article comparing the Soviets to Oedipus Rex: noting that Oedipus plucked out his eyes upon understanding his crime, but that the autocracy could see everything but its crimes. The régime demands his signature to a letter repudiating the article. Tomas refuses and is black-listed from practising medicine. He then gets work as a window washer, while continuing his womanizing.

Working as a waitress, Tereza meets an engineer who propositions her. Aware of Tomas's infidelity, she enters a one-time and unpleasant sexual liaison with the engineer. Remorseful, she fears the engineer might have been a secret agent for the régime, who might blackmail her and Tomas. She contemplates suicide, which Tomas thwarts.

Stressed by insubstantial city life, Tereza convinces Tomas to leave Prague for the country: they go to a village where an old patient of Tomas's welcomes them. In the village, they live an idyllic life, far from the political intrigues of Prague. In contrast, Sabina has gone to the US, where she continues with the detached bohemian style of life. Later, Sabina is shocked by the letter telling of the deaths of Tereza and Tomas in a road accident while returning after celebrating in another town. Their lightness no longer unbearable, Tereza and Tomas were deeply happy as they drove toward death.


The film is a United States production and was directed by an American director, Philip Kaufman, but it features a largely European cast, including Daniel Day-Lewis (British), Juliette Binoche (French), Lena Olin and Stellan Skarsgård (Swedish), Pavel Landovský (Czech) and Derek de Lint (Dutch). It was filmed in France rather than Czechoslovakia: in the scenes depicting the Soviet invasion, archival footage is combined with new material shot in Lyon. The scene in which Tomas is seduced by a woman while cleaning windows was shot in the then unrestored Hôtel de Beauvais in the 4th arrondissement of Paris (now the Administrative Appeal Court).



Kundera served as an active (but uncredited) consultant during the making of the film. Kundera wrote the poem that Tomas whispers into Tereza's ear as she is falling asleep specifically for the film.[3] However, in a note to the Czech edition of the book, Kundera remarks that the movie had very little to do with the spirit either of the novel or the characters in it.[4] In the same note Kundera goes on to say that after this experience he no longer allows any adaptations of his work. Many critics have focused on how much of the book was successfully captured, or could be captured, on film: however, some commentators, such as Cattrysse Patrick, have argued that the film must be viewed in a different light, with the book as only one source of inspiration.[5]


The film garnered high praise from critics. Rotten Tomatoes rates The Unbearable Lightness of Being as 94% "fresh" (positive).[2] The American Film Institute lists it as one of the top 100 love stories in American Cinema.[6]

Home media[edit]

A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in November 1999. The release includes audio commentary by director Philip Kaufman, co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, editor Walter Murch and actress Lena Olin.[7] It was re-released on DVD by Warner Home Video as a 2-disc special edition on February 28, 2006.


The film makes use of music by Leoš Janáček and also Marta Kubišová singing "Hey Jude" in Czech.


  1. ^ Kundera, Milan (1999). The Unbearable Lightness of Being. New York City: Harper Perennial. ISBN 0-06-093213-9. 
  2. ^ a b "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" at Rotten Tomatoes, 2008, webpage: RTom-Unbearable.
  3. ^ "Condemned by fate, persecuted by politics", The Daily Star, 2008-08-30, webpage: DStar-52391.
  4. ^ "Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí", "Poznámka Autora", p. 341, dated 2006 France, published by Atlantis.
  5. ^ Patrick, Cattrysse (1 January 1997). "The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Film Adaptation Seen From a Different Perspective". Literature/Film Quarterly. Retrieved 10 August 2013. 
  6. ^ The Unbearable Lightness of Being in AFI list.
  7. ^ "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". The Criterion Collection. 


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