Unbearable Lightness Of Being (The)
R4 - Australia - Warner Home Video
Review written by and copyright: Noor Razzak and Jarrod Baker (16th August 2006).
The Film

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is the critically acclaimed film of the critically acclaimed book of the same name, by Czech author Milan Kundera. And to a certain extent you can see why those critics liked it - the cinematography, editing and acting are all fantastic, and there are some genuinely electric moments throughout the film.
It's a pity then that this overlong picture serves up these moments at a glacial pace, interspersing them with long boring sequences where nothing of consequence happens.
To begin with the film asks viewers to make two suspensions of disbelief. The first is relatively small - the movie is set (mostly) in Czechoslovakia, so of course the characters would speak Czech. However as this film is aimed at an English-speaking audience, the characters follow the time-honoured tradition of just using a faux Czech accent, Allo Allo style. Of course this film is not unique in using this conceit - it just seems particularly obvious when the main characters in this film are conversing with people who would be unlikely to speak Czech (first in Geneva, then in America), but still use the same pseudo-Slavic English.
This pales into insignificance, however, when compared with the most dissonant part of the film - in which we are somehow expected to believe that the measly, scrawny and downright creepy Daniel Day-Lewis is somehow a tremendously successful ladies' man, with women constantly throwing themselves at him.
This particularly grates with regards to Day-Lewis' relationship with the stunning Juliette Binoche, whose luminous appearance in the movie almost makes it worth watching on its own. Both she and Lena Olin put up with Day-Lewis' womanizing ways, despite him not displaying any characteristics in the entire picture that would merit such loyalty or affection. Instead, he appears simply exploitative, manipulative and damn close to abusive.
In fact, despite the film being feted as some sort of sensuous erotic drama, it shows quite a negative depiction of male sexuality in general. And did I mention the slowness? It's 165+ minutes long. Sure, "King Kong" (2005) topped it by 10 minutes, and "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003) is half an hour longer - but Kong at least had a giant monkey, and ROTK had numerous over sized beasts.
"The Unbearable Lightness of Being", however, contains only regular-sized animals (notably a pig and a dog). These animals do put in sterling performances though - the pig providing much needed comic relief, and the dog offering an Oscar-worthy death scene after it gets cancer, apparently of the leg.
Despite all this the film does have its moments, especially when it is depicting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the culture of fear which results from this invasion. In one particularly effective scene, Binoche, who has been photographing the invasion, is dragged in front of some Communist party officials - where her own photos, intended to show the horrors of the invasion to the world, are instead being used to identify agitators and resistors. Just prior to this in an equally chilling scene we see her furiously snapping pictures as a soldier levels a pistol at her head from the back of a Soviet tank.
I'd like to say that these moments of brilliance (when combined with the above mentioned Unbelievable Hotness of Binoche) save the movie - but unfortunately it ends up being an excellent demonstration of how a film can be well shot, well written, well acted - even well directed, for the most part - but still be boring as hell.

Video

Presented in a widescreen ratio of 1.78:1, this anamorphic transfer isn't as amazing as one would expect and certainly does not show off the stunning photography the film exhibits. Overall I found the image to be rather flat, the colors were dull at times, I noticed a lot of grain in certain scenes (the invasion scenes are exempt from this comment as they were deliberately grainy, scratched and damaged at times to reflect the actual real life footage that was integrated in to the film). Blacks I felt were much too murky and shadow detail was at times very limited. While skin tones were accurate for the most part I was expecting something far better and much sharper from Warner Brothers who in the past has delivered great transfers for older films.

Audio

This film includes two audio tracks, an English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track and a French Dolby Digital 2.0 surround as well. The Surround track is more than adequate for this film, however I found that at times it was mixed quite low and found myself having to turn up the volume to make out what certain people were saying. There isn't as much depth as one would normally hear with a 5.1 mix but for a film that is mainly dialogue based this track is fine.
Additionally the disc also features optional subtitles in English, English for the hearing impaired, Arabic, Croatian, Dutch, French, Romanian and Slovenian.

Extras

DISC ONE:
Since this film's run time is quite long the film has been split over two disc to make room for the documentary.

The first part of the film runs for 109 minutes 31 seconds on this first disc. Included is a feature-length audio commentary by writer/director Philip Kaufman, co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, editor Walter Murch and actress Lena Olin. This is the same commentary that appeared on the now deleted Criterion Collection release of the film. Each of these participants were recorded separately and edited into this track. It's almost entirely screen-specific. Kaufman provides in-depth character backgrounds and outlines the motivations for their actions, he also touches on the shooting of many of the key scenes in the film, he focuses on the 'motifs' of the film and recurring themes. As well as the way in which the film was shot, Kaufman covers almost all aspects of the production process from writing, casting, production design, locations, music and sound among other things.
Co-writer Carrière chimes in with a discussion regarding his introduction to the material and his involvement in the project. He also gives us a general history of Czech films and the climate during the time of invasion. He focuses on areas relating to the script that include the development of each character and how the pages from the book translated to that on the screen.
Editor Murch focuses on his part in the production, he comments on pacing and the editing style of the film, transitions and storytelling choices made in the edit studio mostly around the invasion sequences. He also comments on the book and the authors intermediary involvement in the project.
Finally actress Olin discusses her involvement and how she was introduced to the film's producer Saul Zaentz. She mainly talks about her character and how she approached playing her.
Overall this is one of the best produced commentary tracks I have heard, the participants all provide a wealth of information that will please fans of the film and also those interested in the film making process.

DISC TWO:
The first part of the film runs for 56 minutes 17 seconds on this second disc. The feature-length audio commentary by writer/director Philip Kaufman, co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière, editor Walter Murch and actress Lena Olin is continued on this disc.

Next up is the "Emotional History: The Making of The Unbearable Lightness of Being" a documentary that runs for 30 minutes 24 seconds. This is not your typical EPK piece but rather a proper retrospective clip on the making of the film. The filmmakers discuss the book and how the author wrote it in exile, but mainly focuses on how this seemingly unadaptable book was adapted for the screen, the key lied within understanding the meaning of the title. The clip also looks at the casting choices, the filmmakers strived to locate the best actors in the world and also the right ones for these roles. Also featured in this clip are the locations, cheating 1986 (the year they shot the film) France for 1968 Czechoslovakia. We also learn about the editing process and the integration of actual footage shot on the day of invasion into the film as well as it's reactions upon release in the U.S. and Europe.

Rounding out the disc's extras is the film's original theatrical trailer which runs for 2 minutes 21 seconds.

Overall

The commentary is the stand out feature on this disc, while the documentary although interesting in its own right doesn't warrant repeat viewing. While this Special Edition is welcomed it is still lacking in the extras department and isn't quite as deserving of the Special Edition labelling. Had Warner's spent some time properly restoring the print and included some of the original invasion footage then that would have made this release a definitive edition to purchase.

The Film: C- Video: C Audio: B+ Extras: B Overall: C+

 


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