The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Philip Kaufman achieves a delicate, erotic balance with his screen version of Milan Kundera’s “unfilmable” novel. Adapted by Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carrière, the film follows a womanizing surgeon (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he struggles with his free-spirited mistress (Lena Olin) and his childlike wife (Juliette Binoche). An intimate epic, The Unbearable Lightness of Being charts the frontiers of relationships with wit, emotion, and devastating honesty.
Making its DVD premiere back in 1999 through Criterion, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (not 1.85:1 like the back of the package says) on a dual-layer DVD. This release also marked the second time Criterion enhanced a film for widescreen televisions.
The video presentation found here has never been particularly great, and it really shows its age now. Though longer films are problematic on DVD this one seems particularly bad, loaded with noticeable compression and noise. Edge halos and edge enhancement are also problematic, popping out harshly at its worst. Colours are actually fairly strong, if muted (though this may be the intended look) but blacks can come off severely crushed.
The print is also in rough shape, presenting a number of defects including dust and debris littered throughout along with quite a number of scratches. It doesn’t look particularly good and never really has, but its flaws are much more evident now and really do hamper the viewing.
The 2-channel Dolby Surround track is actually a pleasant surprise. Though I found dialogue weak and fairly hollow, music is loud and lively with terrific depth and range. The surrounds actually get quite a bit to do as well, handling music and some of the background sounds in the film. The invasion sequence is particularly impressive, with tanks, yelling, shots, and explosions filling out the environment and moving quite naturally between the speakers. It’s a shockingly active track.
Criterion unfortunately doesn't present a large special edition for the film. The only real supplement on here is an audio commentary by director Philip Kaufman, writer Jean-Claude Carriere, editor Walter Munch and actress Lena Olin.
For the most part the commentary is very informative and fairly entertaining. Kaufman has the bulk of the track, and deservedly so. He talks about what he was trying to cover in the film, the process of adapting the complicated novel(also covered by Carriere) and working with the author Milan Kundera (who liked the film "very very very very" much).
They also cover the politics of the time and during the filming of the movie. Apparently they could not shoot any of the Russian invasion sequences in Prague so they filmed it in France, and if it wasn't for the fact it’s mentioned I would never have noticed that they had used backdrops for some sequences (of course now I know.) Olin has a little bit to say but not much. She offers her opinions on the novel and also what it was like filming many of the scenes in the film, namely nude scenes.
It’s a long track, but Criterion, who edits all of the participants together, has put it together nicely and keeps the track moving along. Worth a listen.
And then you get a booklet written by Michael Sragow, who covers the depths of the characters and the impact of the film. If you want to avoid any real spoilers before viewing the movie it would probably be best to not read it until after the film.
Unfortunately that’s it, not even a trailer is included. After Criterion’s edition went out of print MGM released a short-lived DVD (with just a trailer) followed by a 2-disc special edition from Warner Bros. which feature the commentary found here as well as a number of new supplements. Though that DVD has its short comings (specifically the fact that the film has been split over the two discs) based on supplements I would point most to pick up that edition instead of this one.
It’s a weak DVD and probably one of Criterion’s most disappointing editions. It’s transfer is pretty lousy and though the commentary is good there’s nothing else. Warner’s DVD is one I would recommend over this. Though it unfortunately splits the film over two discs its transfer is a little better, though judging by the damage it’s probably been sourced from the same print, and it has more supplements and still includes the same commentary found on here. In the end it’s the better deal.