Philip Kaufman‘s adaptation of Milan Kudera‘s novel is a long, erotic rumination on the nature of freedom, personal, political and sexual. It follows an informal triangle involving a womanizing surgeon named Tomas (Daniel Day Lewis), his shy, sensitive wife, Tereza (Juliette Binoche), and his free-spirited lover, Sabina (Lena Olin), through the Prague Spring of 1968, the brutal Soviet crackdown and its aftermath.
At the beginning, Tomas possesses a worldly arrogance, greeting women with four simple words. “Take off your clothes.” On a trip to a spa town to perform brain surgery on a farmer, he meets Tereza, a budding photographer who works as a waitress. When she follows him to Prague, he finds himself in a strange place for him, as he confides in Sabina. For the first time, he finds himself willing to commit to one woman. With surprising speed, he and Tereza are married. The couple, however, is off to a rocky start as Tomas is not completely able to give up his old habits. Their marriage reaches the breaking point the same night the Soviet tanks roll into Prague.
After the communist officials use Tereza’s photographs to identify and arrest protesters, she and Tomas flee to Switzerland, joining Sabina, who’s taken up with a politically active possessor named Franz (Derek de Lint). As a surgeon, Tomas quickly finds work but Tereza is left foundering. She’s unable to sell her photos of the Soviet invasion because it’s already “old news” and unable to cope with Tomas’s continued womanizing. Lacking, as she sees it, the “strength” to handle freedom, she leaves him to return to Czechoslovakia, “the county of the weak.”
Tomas finds himself torn between his carefree life in Geneva and his love for Tereza. He ultimately chooses love over freedom and returns to Prague. Because of his involvement with the reformers, however, he is unable to work as a doctor and forced into menial jobs.
Even though the film is overtly erotic in tone, there is very little explicit sex in the film. There’s plenty of bare skin, of course, but director Kaufman extracts maximum sensual mileage out of the power of suggestion. The key scene in which Tereza, seeking to expand her portfolio, shoots nude photographs of Sabina, is an almost wordless ballet of role reversal and subtle seduction.
Kaufman also does a superb job of contrasting Prague before the crackdown, colorful and vibrant, and after, gray and rotting. Tomas faces one of his former fellow reformers across a desk as the other man almost apologetically acts as communist stooge, enticing him with working as a surgeon again if he just signs a propaganda document condemning the reform movement.
Ultimately, Tomas and Tereza reclaim their freedom by forsaking the city (and any hope of their former lives) and going to live with the farmer on whom Tomas had operated at the beginning of the film. Kaufman and Kudera seem to make the point that real happiness and freedom are independent of politics and material success. For Tomas and Tereza, at least, it seems to be true.