Mark Asch on Juliette Binoche in The Unbearable Lightness of Being
An awful lot of critics reviewing Let the Sunshine In called Juliette Binoche “radiant,” a choice of adjective which must be at least as attributable to a baseline understanding of Binoche as it is to the film’s title. It’s suggestive that Binoche was reflexively described as warm and wise, beatific and affirming, even for a performance that made unprecedented demands on her ability to convey ambivalence, irritability, and moodiness. What we call star persona is not merely a response to an actor’s performances or even personalities. The imaginative niche filled by this or that star is shaped in large part by genre. And as scholars of genre remind us, the networks of conventions and associations within which we mentally sort a film are not merely, or even necessarily primarily, narrative. What they call the “intertextual relay,” which cues up our expectations, includes the frames put around a movie by its marketing and distribution methods. These, with all the savvy of branding consultants, we sometime integrate into the language of genre itself. (I have recently encountered the wording “a film by A24” for the first time, but not, I expect, for the last.) Juliette Binoche is one of the icons of the Miramax era, and this facet of her persona is one that radiates, if you will, through her filmography, casting the whole of it in a light that reads to many Anglophone viewers, especially, as symbolic of sensuality and sophistication.
The idea of the 1990s art-house movie with which Miramax subsequently became synonymous, and Binoche’s career as a 1990s art-house actor synonymous with Miramax-type movies and a screen presence of rarified equipoise, have one major point of origin in her first English-language role, 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Director Philip Kaufman’s film is a nearly three-hour adaptation of a novel by an Eastern Bloc dissident intellectual about sexuality, aesthetics, the sweep of history, the paradoxes of politics and the pain of exile, marked by erudite and forcefully digressive authorial interpolations. In Milan Kundera’s conception, life is “light”—an ongoing narrative that is improvised, conditional, even as choices and their consequences are heavy, permanent. As Daniel Day-Lewis’s brain-surgeon casanova Tomas is pulled between the poles of “Lightness” and “Heaviness” represented by haughty long-term booty-call Sabina (Lena Olin) and ardent wife Tereza (Binoche), so too is the movie: between the genre expectations associated with a film taken from a Serious Novel with Big Ideas and Adult Themes, featuring a cast with auteur-cinema pedigrees, and its own open-ended slyness.
The film is constructed of scenes and sights that have a first-draft freshness, a sense of directness and discovery, right from the very beginning, when Tomas, with a soft smirk, implores a nurse: “Take off your clothes.” He first sees Tereza on a visit to a spa—she dives into a blue-green pool, disrupting the chess game two old men are playing on a floating board. They flirt, but she doesn’t have her own room; he returns to Prague—to his own flat, to the studio where Sabina paints, to wherever the wind takes him—and then she shows up at his door. The Prague Spring dawns, the rock-and-roll band at a local beer hall makes a twist out of the Internationale, and Tomas writes a satirical article for a dissident journal; then the Iron Curtain falls and Soviet tanks role in. All three flee the country, and Sabina keeps running, all the way to America, while Tereza and then Tomas eventually return, surrendering their passports at the border checkpoint. Fortunes change, people age, and things that first seem like delightful surprises accumulate meaning as historical and cinematic time flows forward. Tereza wants to get a dog: “It will make us happy.” Karenin, their adorable Grand Basset Griffon Vendéen, wags its tail as mommy and daddy have makeup sex, then begins to limp, becomes a flesh-and-blood marker of the passage of the years.
Buoyant and sentimental, fleet and sprawling, witty and finally bitterly sad, The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a film infinitely superior to its legacy. When Pauline Kael called it “sophisticated in ways you don’t expect from an American director,” she meant, I think, not that the film is uncommonly ambitious intellectually, or that it goes beyond the usual bounds of American Puritanism with its frequent, emotionally explicit eroticism—but that it does so with such intellectual and sexual playfulness. The black bowler hat that Sabina dons for sex may as well have “MOTIF” chalked on it, but Olin and the film both wear it so insouciantly that the obviousness of the gesture becomes another layer of pleasure.
Binoche’s performance—like Day-Lewis’s and Olin’s—is both self-aware and unself-conscious. She’s playing a concept: Tereza and Sabina embody the film’s double-helical metaphors about love vs. sex, home vs. abroad, commitment vs. freedom. And she does so with flourishes that are at once touching and knowing. She plays the naive, rosy-cheeked country girl as a ravenous innocent who turns on a koruna from timid to avid, who throws her head back in rapture on the dance floor, and cries so easily, tears so close to the skin, when Tomas crawls into bed late, still “smell[ing] of another woman’s sex.” If Tomas is merely sketching in his life, Tereza is living in ink—and when History comes, when the Soviet tanks roll in, she’s ready for it, even excited by it. She takes to the street with a camera—Binoche’s face, when not hidden behind it, is so responsive to the sights all around her—and the film swells with her excitement and engagement, switching to black-and-white and matching its staged scenes to real photographs from the Soviet occupation. Tereza brings Tomas to earth: to life with the land, to physical contact and grief of all the real things of the world; this is in contrast to Sabina, who ends up on the other end of the Western Hemisphere by her story’s cruelly abrupt coda, suddenly weighted down by her own free spirit. Binoche is among the most labile of actors—her needle is always quavering between 6 and 7, with her hand on the dial, ready to yank it to 10. Here, her emotional transparency creates thematic transparency—and so we can share a laugh with her, a sense of joyful exploration.
Over the next decade or so, the gravitational force of genre associations would drag both the film and Binoche’s persona into the mass-market faux-highbrow that Dwight Macdonald called “midcult.” The 1990s were the final, tired echo of aspirational Boomer cinephilia—a time when daily-newspaper critics were constantly on the lookout for vestigial traces of the Janus Films ’60s, that golden age of heady, glamorous foreign films, and frequently found it preceded with the Miramax logo.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being was produced by Saul Zaentz, the independent producer who previously had such brainy zeitgeist hits with another formidable Czech, Miloš Forman: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. By the time Zaentz lined up yet another tony literary adaptation—Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient—Harvey Weinstein had found success selling American audiences on films like Three Colors: Blue, a somber work about European union starring Binoche as a genius composer’s grieving widow. When Zaentz was desperate to raise money to make The English Patient, Weinstein vultured up the distribution rights at “fire sale” prices, per Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures. Upon its release, Miramax’s advertising positioned it by pushing the film’s epic qualities, its tragic romance, and its posh source. Weinstein’s aggressive, industry-altering Oscar campaign delivered Binoche a statuette for a performance suffused with earthiness and sanctified suffering, andpraised, by the Times’s Janet Maslin, for its “radiant simplicity.”
Biskind proclaims that after The English Patient, “the Weinsteins would provide a steady diet of high-toned, Masterpiece Theater–style, Oscar-grabbing pictures often adapted from prestigious literary works"—movies, that is, like Chocolat. In that film, Binoche reteamed with Lena Olin for another story about a sensual and political awakening in Europe. In it, she plays a wandering chocolatier who arrives in a French town under the thumb of a repressive Church and stirs dormant passions with her knowledge of ancient Mayan spices; Miramax again secured her an Oscar nomination. Chocolat is, deservedly, something of a punchline at the expense of late-Clinton America’s wan midcult tastes and Harvey Weinstein’s grubby desire for elite plaudits. But even in this degraded, unintentional parody of the worst movie that The Unbearable Lightness of Being could possibly have been, Binoche gives a performance of easy, expressive range. Binoche seems an incredibly musical actor, the strings on her instrument always taut, producing notes in harmony with the overall plan of the film, whether the tune is schmaltzy or symphonic.
In 2000, when Binoche appeared on Broadway in a revival of Pinter’s Betrayal, the New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin complained of her performance style: “She can do happy, she can do sad, but her palette doesn’t include any shades of gray; under what she says, nothing else is being said.” Applied to Binoche as a film actor, this would seem unfair precisely for how close it comes to describing her greatness: Binoche can do happy, and she can do sad, and under this happiness or sadness is the entire topography of the film. This is especially the case in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, with its wry acknowledgment of the different shallow surfaces it assembles into a shimmering whole.
When Tomas creeps into the apartment after a spell of tomcatting, and Tereza begs him, pathetically, to “Take me to […] the other women”—she says it like vee-men, because her character is Czech—she and Kaufman time the beats of her speech so that she starts out in bed, gets out to pace across the floor, and finishes by looking straight into the camera, even as Binoche’s performance cycles from posturing, blank-eyed accusation, to hand-wringing self-pity, to an imploring tone that hits its peak before the shot or monologue ends. She finishes on a down note, looking away from the camera, as if suddenly surprised by the depth of her own abjection, just as Tomas is taken by his sense of obligation in one of the film’s many nimble role-reversals. Binoche in this scene, with her rosy-translucent complexion, bobbed hair, and white nightdress, looks so much the part of wounded innocent, and is so legible and accessible as Tereza the concept; but here she also finds the moment where that concept contains the potential for its opposite, and convincingly builds to Tereza’s sudden fit of pride, when she throws on a coat and tramps out of the house.
This ability to keep us oriented is precisely what The Unbearable Lightness of Being requires of its actors, and it’s a task for which Binoche is uniquely well suited. Some two hours later, Binoche telegraphs Tereza and Tomas’s domestic bliss with a broad-mouthed, childlike glee that’s appropriate to signify the release, at last, which comes at the end of the film. Binoche may have emerged from The Unbearable Lightness of Being as an arthouse star suitable for international export, but if she is a sensual or sophisticated presence it is not because of the cultural baggage around her performance, but because she is a prism, through whom the light of the whole film radiates.