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 byPhilip Kaufman
Produced by
Screenplay by
Based onThe Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera
Music byMark Adler
CinematographySven Nykvist
Edited byWalter Murch
The Saul Zaentz Company
Distributed byOrion Pictures
Release date
  • February 5, 1988 (1988-02-05)
Running time
171 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$10,006,806

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] Director Philip Kaufman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière portray the effect on Czechoslovak artistic and intellectual life during the 1968 Prague Spring of socialist liberalization preceding the invasion by the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact that ushered in a period of communist repression. 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.


Tomas, a successful brain surgeon in Communist Czechoslovakia, is pursuing an affair with Sabina, an equally care-free artist in Prague. Dr Tomas takes a trip to a spa town for a specialized surgery. There, he meets dissatisfied waitress Tereza, who desires intellectual stimulation. She tracks him down in Prague and moves in with him, complicating Tomas's 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, but feels affection for Sabina. Nevertheless, Tomas marries Tereza, in a simple ceremony with both perpetually laughing, followed by her double standard distress about Tomas' promiscuity. Although she considers leaving Tomas, she becomes more attached to Tomas when the Soviet Army invades Czechoslovakia. Amidst the confusion, Tereza photographs demonstrations against the Soviet forces, 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 encounters Franz, 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 has resumed his brain surgeon position, but his having written a scathing article criticizing the Soviet-backed Czech régime before the invasion, in which he berated them for claiming ignorance of Soviet political purges but seeming unremorseful, and noting that Oedipus Rex plucked out his eyes upon understanding his crime, but the autocratic figures had not, has rendered him a political dissident and has jeopardized his re-employment. The régime demands his signature to a letter repudiating the article, claiming that Tomas' article fueled the anti-communist sentiment. Tomas refuses and is presumably black-listed from practising medicine. Tomas is apparently a window washer, and is recognized by the daughter of a high-ranking official, aware of her family connection, brazenly does his trademark "take off your clothes" line that is successful in examining a "pain in her back".

As a waitress, Tereza meets an engineer who propositions her. Aware of Tomas's infidelity, she encounters a one-time and passionless sexual liaison with the engineer. Remorseful, she fears the engineer might have been a secret agent for the régime, who might denounce her and Tomas. She contemplates suicide at a canal bank; by chance, Tomas passes by Tereza and woos her back.

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 her detached bohemian lifestyle. Later, Sabina is shocked by the letter telling of the fate of Tereza and Tomas in a fatal traffic accident while returning after drinking in a tavern.



The film was an American production with American director, Philip Kaufman, but it features a largely European cast, including Daniel Day-Lewis (British), Juliette Binoche (French), Lena Olin, Erland Josephson and Stellan Skarsgård (Swedish), Pavel Landovský (Czech) and Derek de Lint (Dutch). It was filmed in France as opposed to the plot setting: 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 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.[2]

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.[3] 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.[4]


The film garnered high praise from critics.[citation needed] Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman were nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Adapted Screenplay.[citation needed] The film was listed 87th by the American Film Institute in its 2002 list AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions.[5]

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.[6] 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. ^ "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" at Rotten Tomatoes, 2008, webpage: RTom-Unbearable.
  2. ^ "Condemned by fate, persecuted by politics", The Daily Star, 2008-08-30, webpage: DStar-52391.
  3. ^ "Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí", "Poznámka Autora", p. 341, dated 2006 France, published by Atlantis.
  4. ^ Patrick, Cattrysse (1 January 1997). "The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Film Adaptation Seen From a Different Perspective". Literature/Film Quarterly. Retrieved 10 August 2013.
  5. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2016-08-20.
  6. ^ "The Unbearable Lightness of Being". The Criterion Collection.

External links[edit]