Director: Philip Kaufman
Writer: Jean-Claude Carrière and Philip Kaufman
Cinematography: Sven Nykvist
by Jon Cvack
I had read Milas Kundera’s book about a month before checking out the film. I’d known about the novel for years. I was aware that it dealt with ideas that Nietzsche explored, and having read all of Nietzsche's work - with the exception of his posthumous "The Will to Power" - was thrilled at seeing them adapted into a narrative. I was hoping it’d read as well as other philosophical literature, per Camus, Dostoyevsky, or Sartre. Unfortunately, I was a bit bored, failing to understand what made the book so popular, or what exactly it was exploring. I was hoping the movie would close up the loose ends. Instead, I was left thinking the movie was far greater than the book, later learning that Kundera despised the movie so much that he refused another adaptation of any of his novels, leaving me really confused.
Visiting the Wikipedia page, I see that the book explores Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal state of recurrence, in which all that is to come has already come before.* This means a person should take full advantage of the life they’re living, and in the novel’s case, and Tomas in particular (Daniel Day Lewis), this means a life of sex and love that add lightness to life, which adversely impacts those he gets involved with, in this case two women, creating an unbearable struggle on their end. Get it?
Tomas is a doctor and womanizer, currently involved with the artist Tereza (Lena Olin) who’s as sexy as they come, in addition to numerous other woman he demands remove their clothe moments aftervmeeting them; that is, until he takes a meeting in the country and meets a barmaid, Sabina (Juliette Brioche), who’s reading "Anna Karenina", making her more intellectual and therefore more appealing. Tomas is unable to control himself, leading the three to enter into an epic love triangle, where no one provides any ultimatums, though constantly express their jealousy.
It was Lewis’s involvement in the film that really got me excited to check out the three hour story. Given the backdrop of the Soviet’s invasion of Hungary I was expecting an epic film per the likes of 1900 or Dr. Zhivago. Let me go out on a limb and assume that Tereza represents Hungary under Soviet control - sexy, powerful, confident, while Sabina is an independent Hungary - sensitive, precarious, sentimental. I just find this symbolism uninspired.
The film is good, beautifully shot by Sven Nykvist. Daniel Day’s performance is not amongst his most memorable, but it didn’t need to be. Once again I had no doubts that he was a Hungarian doctor during the Soviet expansion, as he embodied the man’s spirit, allowing us to watch his uncontrollable urges, both with women and in protest against the Soviets, portraying a genuine conflict between acquiescing to the regime and toward his love for Sabina.
Yet somehow the story never feels like it quite connects. We see Tomas eventually attempt to escape to the country with Sabina after he published a damning political editorial, causing him to lose his job at the hospital. We later learn that both he and Sabrina died in a random car accident, by which point Tereza had run off to the states where she learns of their deaths later on. The sporadic nature of Tomas and Sabina’s demise is tragic; I just don’t know what I was suppose to take from it. In the end, Tomas might have come around to vowing complete commitment to Sabina, who put up with his philandering far longer than any partner should’ve. It seems he only changed because of circumstance - no longer able to use his confidence as doctor to demand women remove their clothes. So did he really change, humbled by their rustication, or did he simply have few other options?
Even after reading numerous essays, I still don’t find anything all that deep about this story. It seems to take a superficial understandings of Nietzsche and politics and create the illusion of profundity. The movie is worth checking out for the performances, but for a book that had achieved cult status ever since I first heard about it in college, I was disappointed. I suppose I’ll just have to check out another from Kundera.
*Kundera doesn’t agree with the eternal state of recurrence.
BELOW: One of about a dozen [really good scenes] about jealousy
Thoughts on films, old and new
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