This movie figured in the recommended Adaptations on the Book Forum, and from more than one source. And since I had been a devoted reader of Kundera once, I thought it necessary to get my hands on this one.
Frankly, when the movie began, I feared the worst - which was the overbearance of the sexual theme of the book. After all, one of the lightnesses that Kundera dwelled upon in the book was the lightness of sexual relationships - the overwrought cliche of 'Love is different from sex'. And any director making a movie of Kundera's work would have to restrain hard to not color the adaptation with steamy graphics. Philip Kaufman did not use that restraint. At points, the movie sketched out the sexual scenes in great detail, and though it has been long since I read the book, I definitely don't remember sex getting more than its due attention in the text (though it appears that Kundera is averse to writing a book without giving the physical aspect of relationships a good celebration)
The book is about the fleetingness and insignificance of life. The central character, Tomas, carries on with his life in a very light manner - fleeting from one relationship to other. He also lightly writes an article against the communists, even though he does not attach too much significance to the political happenings around. Since the story is set in Prague in the late 60's at the time of Prague Spring (Wikipedia link), this article has consequences for him when the Russians invade the country and he is left jobless.
Another character, Sabina, Tomas' friend (what he calls 'erotic' friend), also lives her life in this fleeting lightness, refusing to make a permanent home and running away at the sight of a knot that could possibly tie her down.
The antithesis of the two friends is Tereza - a simple minded girl (played by Juliette Binoche in the movie) whom Tomas marries. She is unable either to accept Tomas' open life nor willing to have a promiscuous life of her own. She also takes her profession seriously, appalled when asked to photograph cacti for the gardening section of the newspaper.
The tension between these three characters is nicely captured both in the pen and in the camera. Daniel Day Louis is brilliant as the Tomas who is a bit of a scoundrel. He looks so different from the Newland Archer of Age of Innocence, that I had trouble recognizing him as the same guy. And Juliette Binoche has looked amazingly fresh and lovely - almost childlike at times - a perfect next-door girl.
There are a couple of very well done scenes in the film. One is that of Sabina walking out of a gathering of Czechs in exile, and the other is the last one where Thomas and Teresa drive off in a beautiful countryside, with the look of perfect bliss on their faces.
It is indeed one of the best adapatations I have seen, capturing the thought and the emotions of the writer so well. Or rather generating almost the same feelings as the book did.