In the realm of totalitarian kitsch, all answers are given in advance and preclude any questions. It follows, then, that the true opponent of totalitarian kitsch is the person who asks questions. A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it.
Somehow I managed to miss this movie when it came out, despite having a girlfriend of Eastern European ancestry, despite an interest in the Prague Spring and Cold War repression, and yes, despite an interest in smart, pretty European actresses. It must have been the way the film was advertised, with copious stills of Lena Olin frolicking on a mirror in sexy black lingerie and a bowler hat, that caused Maati to judge it as a piece of sleazy sexploitation that she had no interest in seeing. We probably were not the only Americans to write off what turns out to be a provocative, complex epic rich with historical insights, philosophical criticism, and full-blooded, fascinating characters. It was actually Davis who brought up the movie, and, when I admitted that I'd never seen it, insisted that we put it in the queue immediately. Now I know what I missed.
Well, first off, the movie is full of sex scenes, which are essential for what they reveal about the inner workings of each of the three main characters. Without them, the movie would probably be less successful and less illuminating. And the meaning and power of sex is a crucial theme in the novel by Milan Kundera (previously thought unfilmable...and maybe it is; I haven't read it) that Phil Kaufman's film is based on.
It's 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and the city of Prague is open and inviting. The Soviet-supported government has loosened up a bit, offering what they call "socialism with a human face" (which sounds pretty much like what we've had in most of Western Europe for years at this point), and people are relishing a taste of the Sixties in their corner of Eastern Europe. Surely a little free love, rock and roll, and open discussion of ideas can't do any harm, can it? In this milieu, womanizing brain surgeon Tomas (Daniel Day Lewis) and clever eccentric artist Sabina (Lena Olin) have a good thing going: regular dates for playful, theatrical sex involving mirrors and a handsome black bowler hat, and the freedom to live their lives apart the rest of the time. It suits both of them, so far; neither one has much use for commitment or romanticism, Tomas satisfying his insatiable curiosity via endless one-night stands and Sabina expressing her contempt for convention and connection; to her, such things are oppression, boredom, and worst of all, kitsch. (Her recurring comment: "I like to leave.") Both of them might live out their lives this way quite contentedly, but circumstances intervene.
Enter Tereza (Juliette Binoche), an eager, sensitive small town girl who Tomas hopes to recruit as his latest playmate. Responding to his casual flirtations, she packs her bags, moves to Prague, and shows up at Tomas' door. You may expect to be set up for a trite virgin-whore dichotomy between the two women, but that whole notion is delightfully subverted when Tereza literally pounces on Tomas, kissing him ferociously and knocking him to the ground. This girl may be guileless, but she is no shrinking violet. When he wakes up the next morning (this is a man who made a big point of never spending the night with any woman---not even his best pal Sabina---once the deed was done), their hands are locked together in an iron grip. That grip holds for the rest of the two characters' lives, in spite of everything.
How does this hedonistic, downright smug cad make the shift and learn what love is? Well, it does not happen quickly or easily, and it takes the whole movie for it to happen conclusively. Tomas compartmentalizes his life so he can continue his exploits while simultaneously giving lip service to his commitment. But Tereza's power is palpable, even when she seems to be the "weak" one. It's Binoche's performance that is key here; she is so utterly irresistible that you don't doubt Tomas's love, twisted and inauthentic as it may be at the start, for a second. Not only is she as cute as a button, she utilizes her training at a clown college to energize her screen presence. In an unusually sexually charged movie, competing against Lena Olin's formidable catlike poise and piercingly intelligent eyes, Juliette Binoche steals the show with sneezes, goofy grins and silly little dances. It's magical.
This is neither a ribald sex farce or a tragic love-triangle story, though. It's a character-driven epic that follows three intriguing people's lives during a focal point of 20th century history. There's jealousy, but there is also a deep bond and a mutual respect that grows between the two female leads. The night they first meet at Sabina's apartment, Tomas seems to become irrelevant all of a sudden, a boy trying to get the attention of two adults. A later intense-yet-comical scene featuring the two leaves us wondering, "did they or didn't they?" (I won't reveal any more; you really should see this film. Several times.)
But all of that is only one aspect of this sprawling movie. Remember, this is Prague in 1968. And we are there. (The role of Prague is well-played by Lyon, France and some skillfully-placed backdrops---this was a pre-Glasnost, pre-Velvet Revolution production.) The feel of the city in the first hour is one of optimism, challenge and excitement: a 60s environment of mini-skirts, cool shades, Czech-language covers of "Hey Jude", and free-flowing conversation interrupted by incredulous musings to the effect of, "can you believe we're getting away with this?", while scowling bureaucrats lurk in the background.
Ah yes, the scoundrels. There's a great scene early on in a nightclub where a rock band is beating out a boisterous rendition of "That'll Be The Day" to a gleeful audience of bopping youth. Up in the balcony sit a group of Communist Party officials, toasting each other and gazing imperiously at the crowd below. Sabina, Tereza, and Tomas play a game at their table, posing the question, "Can you tell a man is a scoundrel by looking at him?" and sizing up the Party potentates one by one: "scoundrel", "scoundrel", etc. (Naturally, Tomas becomes the butt of the joke at the end.) One of the "scoundrels" approaches the stage and demands that the band play a dour patriotic song. The band obliges and the audience howls with disgust, while the big boys on the balcony smile and raise another toast...until the band, having had enough of this crap, break into a swinging 60s boogaloo version and the kids go wild. The Party officials exit, indignant, and the fun goes on. It's a small victory, but ominous as hell when you know what's coming. We get our first taste of the authoritarian mindset here. Later it comes out in full force.
When the Soviet tanks hit Prague, it's absolutely gut-wrenching and effectively invasive. It's as if another movie has suddenly barged in to destroy the one we've been watching for the last hour. We switch from color to stark black and white as actual footage is blended with shots of Tereza shooting photos, Tomas searching for her, and Sabina, shrewd and unsentimental as usual, driving to the border in her already-loaded car (everybody drives these cute dinky-looking Czech sedans that look about one step up from the notorious East German Trabant) and beckoning to the couple as if to say, "Fuck this shit; are you leaving now or what?"
We're in a police station as Tereza, among other photographers, is being interrogated by the authorities. Taking pictures of the invasion is in itself an unpatriotic act, you see? Here again is the authoritarian mindset at its finest: it is something beyond any particular ideology; we could just as easily be in Chile during Missing. (Well, at least she isn't slaughtered in a soccer stadium with thousands of others. On that count, Brezhnev's lackeys come out looking relatively good.) "Left" and "right" have no meaning in this setting. Which economic system or political structure or global alliance is being sworn allegiance to is beside the point; authoritarianism is the same everywhere. The Communists in Czechoslovakia in 1968 would be fascists in Chile in 1973 or Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996 or Fundamentalist Christians in 21st century America. The attitude that people are out of control and need a strong hand to keep them in order...that's universal. The rest is window dressing. A scoundrel is a scoundrel. Something to keep in mind when you read that the excellent German movie The Lives Of Others, about Stasi surveillance in East Germany, is considered by some morons to be "one of the top conservative movies of recent years". (Stepping off of soapbox, putting away my old Crass records...)
There is a period where our three protagonists all end up in Geneva, living the exile life and trying to adapt. Both women find the Swiss insufferably superficial; Tomas takes it all in stride, as he always does. A subplot ensues where Sabina is courted by an earnest but rather clueless married Swiss college professor, and she starts to look less like a force of nature and more like a temperamental brat. (Specifically in a funny sequence where she makes a big scene in an expensive restaurant because she hates the Muzak playing almost imperceptibly in the background. Most of the movie is fueled by a nonstop Janacek soundtrack which makes the offending rinky-dink "noise" sound even sillier than it already is, so the viewer may see her point.) In the end she bolts for the US, ending up in Bolinas, where she pursues her art career, befriends a sweet elderly couple, and flirts with a hunky mailman. Tereza, having nothing to do and feeling both unable and unwilling to fit in the world of chic Western European photojournalism, heads back home to face the worst that post-invasion Prague has to offer. Tomas, the empty cipher the movie revolves around, goes through the motions of being womanizing Tomas, the suave brain surgeon about town, for a moment. He can't stand it. The lightness of his being has become unbearable. Suddenly, something/someone truly means something to him. He has to leave everything, because life is pointless without his wife.
Back home the authoritarians have won. The returning Czech expatriates have their passports confiscated at the border as their reward for coming back. The same settings that seemed lively and vibrant at the start now have a quiet, nasty, ominous feel. Every person you pass on the street could well be gathering information on you, so the intellectual fervor of the Prague Spring has been replaced by sullen, bitter silence.
Tomas loses his position at the hospital because of an article he wrote in a magazine about Oedipus Rex and what it means to take responsibility for one's actions, which the secret police interpret with the same critical acumen you would find among our own current right-wing pundits: "Do you really believe that Communists should pluck out their eyes?" Offered a chance to sign an official retraction, he refuses on principle; Tomas is actually fairly apolitical, but he will not accept being pushed around by anyone. Eventually he loses his practice altogether and becomes a window-washer (even then finding opportunities to play the horndog, this time with the wife of a Party official), while Tereza is sexually harassed as a bartender and later has a creepy one-night stand with a seemingly friendly guy who may be yet another spy. Any glamour that may have come from the previous regime's sexual openness has now been replaced by predatory sleaze and exploitation. In the DVD commentary, there is much talk of how sex in Czechoslovakia became an arena where people felt it was the only place they could have any freedom. (Or was it an opiate for the masses, passively sanctioned by the state?) I guess the Communists didn't suppress access to birth control, since with all this rampant coupling, nobody ever seems to have the slightest concern about getting pregnant.
Tereza and Tomas find their peace in the end by leaving the city and joining a collective farm run by one of Tomas's former patients. This is no sentimental rural idyll; we see them working terribly hard. But the forced simplicity of their life somehow gives them back the dignity that the scoundrelocracy of Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia robbed from them. In the final moments of the film, we see a subtly different Tomas, a decent, compassionate man whose healing powers are still with him, and a man totally devoted to the incredible woman who has been right there with him the whole time. The last night we share with them, they and their friends drink and dance at a little pub. Later, the couple head up to their room, Tereza balancing her feet on her husband's. After three-plus hours of film punctuated with intimate sex scenes, they open the door and close it behind them. There is a little more after that, but I'd like to end this review there, at the moment when they are finally left to themselves for one last sweet night.