It's 1968 in the city of Prague, and revolution is in the air. Young doctor Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an enthusiastic womaniser, and when he visits a spa to perform an operation, he becomes romantically involved with Tereza (Juliette Binoche), a woman who works there. But events are catching up with them, and the as Soviets invade the lovers are forced to flee...
Philip Kaufman and Jean-Claude Carriere adapted Milan Kundera's supposedly unfilmable novel into a handsome, despondent tale of love, sex and oppression (both political and personal). If you haven't read the book, you may feel at something of a disadvantage, because you get the sense of something missing from this version: an emotional connection, perhaps. And as it draws on, you realise it's one of those films where, whenever people are shown having a good time, things will soon go horribly wrong for them.
Binoche impresses as Tereza, starting out sensitive and naive, then ending up heading for a breakdown as she can't cope with either her husband's infidelity or the depressing situation she finds herself in. The most interesting character is Sabina, an earthy, wise and playful artist who is Tomas' long term lover (attractively portrayed by Lena Olin, even if that bowler hat doesn't really suit her). On the other hand, Day-Lewis is presumably supposed to come across as a smouldering, charming rogue - instead he is more like a smug git, totally undeserving of the attentions of all those women, which is a problem the film never resolves.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as the name suggests, is more at home with the miserable aspects of its story. There is the question of sex without love being a less satisfying experience than sex with love, and that's certainly true for Tereza, if Tomas is not entirely convinced. Despite the setting of the late sixties, the self-expression of sexual freedom is born less from any spirit of the times, and more from the personalities of the main characters - their sexual adventures are supposed to set them free from the, er, "heavier" concerns of life.
Hanging over those characters like a shadow is always the iron fist of the Soviet authorities. Although photgrapher Tereza wants to be politically aware, Tomas and Sabina are happy not to bother with such things until they can't ignore them anymore. The sequence where the Russian tanks rumble menacingly into Prague is a highlight, with use of black and white and faded colour to recreate a newsreel look.
Unfortunately for him, Tomas has previously written an anti-Communist article, which only appears to be a plot device to get the secret police after him when he follows Tereza back home (she can't cope with the freedom of living in Geneva or being married to Tomas). And after the couple attain some measure of contentment, the out-of-nowhere "shock" ending feels like a cheat, only added to sustain the depressing atmosphere once the film is over. Three hours is a long time to stay with all this for an ending like that.