Pawel Pawlikowski’s followup to his 2015 Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film Ida is another melancholy contemplation of life in Poland in the postwar period. This time through the narrow lens of a mismatch couple and their romantic ups and downs. Again shot by cinematographer Lukasz Zal in moody black-and-white, again utilizing the same old-fashion square aspect ratio. Cold War is — like Ida — deliciously reminiscent of films of the period it’s set in; this is cinematic romance as lush throwback to classics of the 1950s and 60.
It’s critical to know that writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski loosely based his main characters in Zimna wojna [Cold War] on their namesakes: his parents. To know he acknowledges the fact that they were destructive together and lovesick apart makes the way in which the fictional Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig). That interact easier to accept since they aren’t necessarily “good” people. They’re selfish, headstrong, and opportunistic.
They constantly take via a consciously knowing means of manipulation and grow frustrat . When things don’t work out quite to plan. At a certain point during the film one can be heard lamenting their present fate with, “What have we done?”. And while it initially gave me pause because one seemingly carries more fault than the other, I realize neither was innocent.
Co-written by Janusz Glowacki, the plot begins with these two “loves of their lives” meeting under unlikely circumstances. Wiktor is the conductor of a project co-run with fellow musician Irena (Agata Kulesza) and bottom-line political stooge Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc).
They’ve taken it upon themselves to travel the Polish countryside circa 1949 to find singers, dancer. And instrumentalists able to rekindle a sense of national pride through traditional folk songs left beautiful and untouched by the destruction of the war. Zula is one such artist—albeit rumore to be pretending she’s more folksy and impoverish than the truth may reveal. She doesn’t have the best voice of those discover. But her electric presence catches Wiktor’s eye to work with her until she’s both the company’s star and his lover.
Life is grand for two years. Not only has Wiktor and Irena change Kaczmarek’s heart as far as the music’s value. That achieve the government’s goals, the chance to travel abroad is also present.
And here lies the first of many pivotal moments in Wiktor and Zula’s romance. A minister presents an ultimatum to the group: if they want his financial and political support. They must start singing songs about Stalin’s communist regime and its strength to carry them towards prosperity. Irena is vehemently against it while Kaczmarek sees its potential to highlight his unwavering loyalty. Wiktor on the other hand remains silent. He goes with the plan because it allows him to keep his head down. Zula agrees because singing has given her a life.
Alas that the romance never quite gels. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Woman in the Fifth) are named for director and cowriter (with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski) Pawlikowski’s parents. The film is dedicated to them. But this cannot be entirely a true story. The onscreen lovers don’t appear to have had a child together, for one big thing — so clearly some of this has been fictionalized.
More of it needed to be. Cold War cannot decide whether Wiktor and Zula are so madly in love. That they would take enormous risks and put themselves in considerable danger to be with each other, or not. Most egregiously, a decision by one of them at a pivotal point in the story is so baffling. So unsupported by what we’ve seen, that I simply could not buy anything that came after. If this were a completely true story, then, well, people do inexplicable things sometimes. But even “truth is stranger than fiction” doesn’t always cut it even in a “based on a true story” story.
If this were, in fact, a 60-year-old film, this decision might be easier to overlook:
Contexts were different then, and presumptions an audience would bring in then are not the same ones we bring now. But in a new film made from modern perspectives. It feels either lazy or deliberately vague to some unconsidered purpose.
It’s also quite strange that while the actors are only five years apart in age. She comes across as very much younger than him, though with a naïveté that comes and goes depending on the needs of the plot. So I’m not sure whether or not there is meant to be a large age difference. That between them to account for the fact that Wiktor and Zula seem emotionally and psychologically at odds at times.
The romance, then, is not compelling enough to allow for the other intriguing aspects of the tale to take a backseat. Which is, disappointingly, the case. The romance unfurls over a backdrop of music: They meet at a school that he has helped found, at which she is a student, for traditional Polish folk music and dancing, in 1949. (He plays the piano; she sings and dances.)
Their relationship develops as the school mounts a troupe that gives glorious public performances. And as patriotism is forced to give way to propaganda: in the early 1950s they are required to perform songs praising Stalin alongside their “peasant music.” By the late 50s, they are reveling in decadent jazz in Paris, and in sexy French torch songs. But any notion in the film of exploring music as a metaphor for freedom, or the stifling of it for oppression, is unfocused, at best.
Cold War looks gorgeous and sounds wonderful. But as the passionate romance it wants to be, it left me feeling distinctly chilled.
Rating: R (for some sexual content, nudity and language)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Directed By: Pawel Pawlikowski
Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
Written By: Pawel Pawlikowski, Piotr Borkowski
In Theaters: Dec 21, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Mar 22, 2019
Runtime: 89 minutes
Studio: Amazon Studios
CRITIC REVIEWS FOR COLD WAR (ZIMNA WOJNA):
Incredibly sexy. It’s nice to see a movie that’s actually about passion.
“Cold War” captivates and transcends barriers of language and culture. It’s a gorgeous tale as rocky as it is romantic.
Heart-thumping: the passion on display is of all sorts, a steady flame against the cold.
Pawlikowski remains a director to watch and Cold War is a film to watch again and again.