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The Right Way to Get Physical in 'Unbearable Lightness of Being'

February 11, 1988|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

For all the gruntings, groanings, grapplings, heavings and camera passages across mounds of unidentifiable pearly flesh that movies have presented in the last 20 years, the moments when they have got it right have been scandalously scarce.

When the movies try for eroticism--usually defined as feathers, satin, aerobic stretching and a light sheen of perspiration--the results often verge on hilarity.

The wonder of Philip Kaufman's film of the Milan Kundera novel "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" is that, better than any major and serious film I can think of, it has got the ways of man and woman together just about right.

The castings have seldom been so crucial. Bankable stars, toting their baggages of public images and past roles, triumphant or otherwise, would have dulled the clarity of these characterizations.

Daniel Day-Lewis is a star rising fast, but the roles in more modest films have left him unencumbered as the avidly enthusiastic Tomas. The French actress Juliette Binoche and the Swedish actress Lena Olin are in their unfamiliarity (and their talent) just right for the women in Tomas' complicated life of engagement and noncommitment.

By some small or even mid-sized miracle, Kaufman and his players have caught the playfulness, the joyfulness, the sudden devouring appetites, the transcendent feelings of well-being and tranquillity of physical love, but without making an embarrassed voyeur of the viewer or suggesting that what we have seen are the fantasies of an overwrought teen-ager.

We are a long way from the gloomy and suicidal confrontations of "Last Tango in Paris," whose power lay in Bernardo Bertolucci's depiction of the sterility of the lives and the destructive absence of any kind of caring.

Caring--even if it is concealed, denied or simply left unstated by two of the three characters in the triangular relationship at the heart of "Unbearable Lightness"--is in large part what gives their romping togethernesses such conviction and such sweetness. They are friends--at very least--and lovers.

Lena Olin, who was in Los Angeles for the opening of the film, had been seen here previously in the brief run of "After the Rehearsal," a small film co-starring Erland Josephson, that Ingmar Bergman made originally for television. She is in the company at the Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm, where she is now doing "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

An associate of producer Saul Zaentz had seen her as Cordelia in "King Lear." At the friend's suggestion, Zaentz, in Stockholm for ceremonies in honor of the 10th year of the run of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," watched her work and asked her to a party.

"I'm not much for parties," Olin said one afternoon during her visit, "but I went with a friend and we talked." Later Zaentz returned with Kaufman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist. "They kept coming back," she said. Finally, it was with a contract.

"I had read Kundera and I was amazed they picked this one. It is so philosophical I thought it would be very hard to make." Her character is Sabina, a successful artist to whom Tomas keeps returning but who seems no more eager for commitment than he is.

"The Czechs love her because she's free, and at first I had difficulty understanding her. But if you're going to do a character, you have to create a personal relationship with her.

"I think she must have been hurt very much, in some way we don't know about. I don't think she's free. She's hurt. (I wish I could talk to you in Swedish; it's complicated to say.) She keeps leaving, but she's in love with Tomas even if she's not aware of it.

"She never stops to cope with trouble, which is sad because she's a strong woman. I ended up liking her very much."

The most talked-about sequence in the film is a long photographic session, with Sabina initially posing nude for Binoche as Tereza, who is making a career with the camera, and then with both women nude.

Like the love scenes, it is both sensual and kittenish, and conveys a rapt and unself-conscious delight that suggests there was no crew or camera within several kilometers. (An unexpected guest arrives and in a curious and amusing way, it is as if the viewer has been discomfitted as well.)

It can't have been easy, but the actress says it was: "In scenes like that, if you're surrounded by artists, it's not a trouble."

Both her parents are actors and her father also worked with Bergman when he was young. Her mother left the stage at 30 when she had her first child.

There was little rehearsal, deliberately, on "Unbearable Lightness," which suited Olin fine. "On stage you have to prepare to repeat a performance I don't know how many times. For film, I like to hold something back for the camera. It's a celebration for the camera, like opening presents. If something wonderful happens in rehearsal, I feel terrible, because it's lost.

"And of course you want to be surprised by your fellow actors, not be bored by the 10th reading. The first time you do something you surprise yourself. It's like finding a needle in a haystack. You can act hate, depression, sadness, anything, but not that little moment of surprise."

Olin, who is 33 and has a child now just over a year old, is finally the strong, vital, surviving center of the complex mixture of feelings and events in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." She, the surprises and the mature beauty of her performance stay in mind.

"After the Rehearsal," which played here after "Fanny and Alexander," was presumably the last Ingmar Bergman film we will see. Lena Olin is not so sure. "I talked with him not long before I left. He's restless. He's hungry. Nothing would surprise me."

Now, if Bergman had a script for Olin . . . .

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