Wednesday, 3 March 2010

In The Kingdom Of Kitsch You Would Be A Monster.

I love the writings of Milan Kundera. I think the way he explores his characters and the way he approaches narrative is thrilling, different, exciting. And I've always thought it would be kind of hard to transplant his particularly literary style into cinema without making vast changes. Philip Kaufman, however, gave it a red hot go with his adaptation of Kundera's classic The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.

Tomas (Daniel Day Lewis) is a Czechoslovakian brain surgeon, living in Prague, carrying on a physical and intellectual relationship with artist Sabina (Lena Olin), whilst successfully romancing and seducing any other woman he may wish to. Attractive, successful and intelligent, he is sent out of Prague to perform an operation and meets Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a young country girl who seems to fall for him almost instantly. Returning to Prague he doesn't give her another thought, continuing to screw Sabina whilst refusing to turn it into a true and traditional relationship, when Tereza turns up at his doorstep and he takes her in, for the first time allowing a woman to sleep in his bed.

The arrival of Tereza doesn't stop Tomas from seeing Sabina, or indeed chasing anyone else he may want, and the three eventually end up in a ménage à trois of sorts, each knowing about the other, swapping around, doing whatever it is they have to do. This is all happening in the lead up to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and Tomas writes an article denouncing the Soviets, comparing them to Oedipus, in that he plucked out his eyes in recognition of their crimes, but the Soviets are yet to repent in such a way. The tanks roll in to Prague, photographed beautifully by Tereza, and the three flee to Switzerland, first Sabina, and then Tomas and Tereza together. Sabina begins a relationship with a married professor, but when he announces that he has left his wife to be with her she runs away, unable to be tied down to any form of normality. Meanwhile, Tomas has maintained his womanising while Tereza has struggled to fit in with Swiss society, and, angered, she flees back to Soviet Czechoslovakia. Distraught, Tomas follows her, despite the fact that his passport is confiscated and he is left trapped in the country.

Tereza is elated by his return, but Tomas finds himself unable to return to his job as a doctor as he refuses to sign a document retracting his previous article. He is deemed too politically dangerous to be in such a lofty position, and is left washing windows, still seducing women as he goes. Tereza convinces Tomas to leave Prague for a simpler country life, and the two bunk up with an old patient of Tomas', living off the land and enjoying the simple things until an horrific accident leaves Sabina shocked in her new American home.

You see? It's quite complex. There's a lot going on in the story, necessitating its not insubstantial running time. But Kaufman (and co-writer Jean-Claude Carrière) do an admirable job of keeping the story moving over this period, really only using three main characters, even managing to retain some of Kundera's styles, making them work in a visual manner. Kaufman keeps the film moving despite some very enclosed, repeated set pieces as well - it's quite a feat to keep one entertained in the same place time and time again.

Day Lewis is great as Tomas, though I didn't really feel that his character had that much to do over the course of the film. I've seen much stronger performances from him, which isn't to say that there was anything wrong with this one. However, the film seems much more to be about the women, particularly Tereza, and what she goes through and how she responds. Binoche pulls of her young naivety and growth into a stronger and purposeful woman with gusto, shining through dour moments with clarity and beauty. Olin supports and enlivens her, giving Tereza a launching pad to discover herself and grow, to deal with Tomas, accept him, and then change him to suit her needs.

Editing and sound legend Walter Murch (he didn't handle the sound on this film) cuts it all together sublimely, and Sven Nykvist shoots the film in a neo-realist, almost dirty fashion, allowing Prague to look rundown but real while Switzerland seems pretty but sterile, nicely balanced by Tomas and Tereza's time in the country. All in all, a brave attempt, reasonably successfully completed. 3.5 stars.

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