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Kaufman’s Intensely Cinematic Love Story
on 26 May 2017
With his 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s lauded novel, director Philip Kaufman not only gives us an intensely passionate, highly cinematic three-way love story, but also marshals an impressively international team in doing so. France is represented by being the film’s proxy location for Kundera’s Prague 1968 setting (with some actual Prague footage edited in), as well as providing co-screenwriter (and regular Luis Bunuel collaborator) Jean-Claude Carrière and one of Kaufman’s acting leads, a 23-year old Juliette Binoche as amateur photographer, Tereza, delivering a brilliantly moving turn in her first English-speaking screen role. Curiously, Sweden is also heavily represented via cinematographer (and regular Ingmar Bergman collaborator) Sven Nykvist, whose evocation here of 'Prague bohemia’ is highly memorable, and actors Lena Olin, also delivering an impressively complex performance as artist, Sabina, plus Erland Josephson (another Bergman collaborator) and Stellan Skarsgard. Leading for the Brits is, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis again excellent as brain surgeon and womaniser, Tomas, whilst elsewhere in the cast we also get Dutch, Polish and (appropriately) Czech representation.
Kaufman’s film is one of truly epic proportions, running to just short of three hours, switching 'location’ between Prague and Geneva, and pulling off a successful cinematic 'marriage’ of love story against the political backdrop of the Prague Spring (with Soviet tanks rolling in around mid-film). Indeed, the film’s undercurrent of repressive political machinations and potential conspiracies adds another layer of uncertainty to the lives of Kaufman’s central protagonists, as Tereza’s shy innocent in love is pitched (optimistically) against the seemingly carefree hedonism of Tomas and Sabina, thus upping the ante on the trio’s own existential crises. The aura of tension between the prevailing communist regime and burgeoning liberalism is never far away – there is a particularly memorable music concert/party scene in which That’ll Be The Day is usurped by party apparatchiks – but (for me) it is the scenes involving Kaufman’s central trio where the film really scores. Sexual symbolism is frequently to the fore, whether it be phallic cacti, Sabina’s hat or the recurring use of mirrors, the latter also playing up the theme of transient identity and used to spice up Tomas and Sabina’s couplings and to lend Sabina and Tereza’s mutual photography shoot a touch of Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai. Other particularly memorable sequences include that where Tomas’ political humiliation is completed as we cut to him as window cleaner (with Prague’s Church of Our Lady before Tyn enshrouded in scaffolding in the background) and, to reinforce Tereza’s seeming despair in her search for 'spiritual’ love, first she is confronted in a bar by a youth ordering ‘cognac’ (significantly recalling an earlier incident) and then where Tereza suffers a truly horrific coupling with Skarsgard’s 'nice’ engineer.
The film’s ever-present cultural content (literature, music, photography) is reinforced by Kaufman’s excellent use of music, principally by Leos Janacek, whose use in some of the more comedic sequences called to my mind Kubrick. The other cinematic comparator that occurred to me, partly given the communist content and presence of Binoche was that of Krzysztof Kieslowski, oddly though not Three Colours Blue (in which Binoche appeared), but more the innocence, against a political backdrop, of Irène Jacob in The Double Life of Véronique.