Going into this film, I was completely unsure of any of the specifics, which nowadays is pretty great considering all of the readily available spoilers everywhere you turn. I knew it was a sort of love story, but what I got was something beyond my furthest dreams. I was bowled over and totally impressed with the scope and heart of this film.
The film beings innocently enough, in fact, at first I was rather unimpressed. A doctor living in Prague, played with cool sexiness (and big ‘80s hair) by Daniel Day Lewis, is thoroughly enjoying his bachelor lifestyle and his detachment from women. He has a special place in his heart for Sabina, a very sexy artist who he cares for deeply, even as she uses the good doctor every bit as selfishly as he uses her. Soon, the doctor meets a sort of simple café waitress, who he becomes irreversibly intrigued with. Not long after they meet, the two are married and the doctor continues his affair with the sultry Sabina, even as the Communists being to take over Czechoslovakia.
The premise is an old one, yes, but it really works, thanks to the extraordinary, sensitive performances of the three central actors. They put such honesty and effort into their work that any cliché or old convention is thrown out the window. They all play their roles with sexiness, humor and frankness. I was particularly impressed with the very under-appreciated Lena Olin, who is so hot it’s ridiculous. As Sabina, she is able to surrender to the carnal side with intelligence, longing and a spicy sweetness. She was born to play this role. Juliette Binoche also showed me a little of why she is so adored. Usually I am not her biggest fan, but she finds a nice niche somewhere in between being sort of childish and dreamy and being emotionally devastated. It’s probably the hardest role in the film and she comes off really nicely. Her character’s arc is the most dramatic, and she navigates the depths with perfect timing, genuine heartbreak and daffy humor.
Both actresses are not shy about the very erotic aspects of the film, which is wonderful. The nudity in the story is not distracting or out of context. It fits the characters and is essential to the plot, therefore making it the opposite of gratuitous. There is a really emotionally intense scene in which the wife and the mistress photograph each other in the nude that ranks among each of the actresses best work for it’s candor, wit, and exploratory nature.
The story, based on Milan Kundera’s prize winning novel, takes so many unexpected twists that it’s best not to spoil it here. Just when I thought the film would be about marital distress and sexual unhappiness, the Russian army came rolling through Prague to shake everything up and the principles move to Geneva to live in exile. Director Philip Kaufman captures the epic greatness of the story with a masterful, vivid visual expression. His love for the material is apparent. The structure is wonderful, the way the story casually unfolds and the leisurely pace in which everything is resolved. It is definitely a European “art-film” at heart, but one that will surprise you at every romantic turn.