The American Society of Cinematographers

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M I3
The Propositon
DVD Playback
Midnight Cowboy
Ryans Daughter
Unbearable Light...
ASC Close-Up
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Special Edition
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital 2.0
Warner Home Video, $26.95

To many, Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being appeared to be an unfilmable novel. The book tells of a love triangle between a philandering doctor, his wife and his mistress, whose lives are shaped by political upheaval in 1968 Czechoslovakia, but the author’s voice constantly intrudes on the action, providing lengthy digressions on social, political and artistic matters. Yet director Philip Kaufman and co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere accomplished the improbable in their 1988 adaptation of the novel, which was luminously photographed by Sven Nykvist, ASC. Although the filmmakers jettison Kundera’s voice, they remain utterly faithful to it, finding in the story’s love triangle a way to capture the spirit of the novel.

Kaufman could not have chosen a better collaborator than Nykvist, who took up the challenge of finding visual corollaries for the novel’s internal quality by constantly using light and shadow to illustrate the story’s emotional content. This is evident right from the beginning, when the doctor, Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), first lays eyes on his future wife, Tereza (Juliette Binoche), as she swims in a pool. Using light reflected off the water, Nykvist creates subtle but shimmering movement on Tomas’ face that simply and perfectly conveys his excited state.

The cinematographer also takes the film’s themes of vision and reflection and runs with them, particularly in his elaborate use of mirrors in the frame. Tomas and his mistress, Sabine (Lena Olin), are constantly viewed by the audience and each other in reflections, and when they are not, the moments are significant. The same goes for the filmmakers’ subtle but precise modifications in point of view; every image simultaneously advances the story, tells us something about the characters’ inner states, and is beautiful for its own sake. It’s no wonder Nykvist was honored with ASC and Academy Award nominations for his impeccable work.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been released on DVD twice before, once by MGM and once by The Criterion Collection, and Warner Home Video’s new, two-disc special edition has a lot in common with the Criterion edition. The transfer is nearly identical (and vastly superior to MGM’s), but Warner’s edition is slightly cleaner, without the occasional artifacts that marred the Criterion transfer. There is a vibrant sound mix, and Nykvist’s elegant palette has been perfectly preserved. As much as anything else, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is about sensuality, and Nykvist’s gorgeous lighting of its love scenes is rich and sumptuous.

This DVD borrows Criterion’s commentary track, which is shared by Kaufman, Carriere, Olin and editor Walter Murch and is a superb example of the form. Thematic analysis, technical issues, and behind-the-scenes anecdotes are perfectly balanced in their remarks, which, like the film, remain riveting for three hours. The new supplements on this DVD comprise the film’s theatrical trailer and the half-hour documentary “Emotional History,” which focuses on the challenges of shooting a historically specific film in a country other than the one where the story takes place. Kaufman, Murch, Carriere and producer Saul Zaentz discuss how they substituted France for Prague, as well as how they integrated archival footage with fictional material. Although the technical information is limited, the documentary is quite entertaining.

For those who own Criterion’s DVD of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, there really isn’t enough new content on this edition to warrant another purchase, but Warner’s slightly superior transfer might be a sufficient lure. For fans of the film who didn’t purchase Criterion’s DVD, which is now out of print, this edition is a must.

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