Period drama Cold War marries European elegance with Hollywood polish in tale of love weathered by history
Cold War is director Pawel Pawlikowski’s ode to his parents, who had a four-decade-long on-and-off relationship. (Supplied: Palace Films)
“Time doesn’t matter when you’re in love,” a woman tells her ex-lover’s girlfriend somewhere in the middle of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Poland-set period drama.
The bitchy irony with which this line is delivered rings true to the film’s slow dismantling of the romantic ideal over the course of a turbulent 15-year love affair between musicians Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig).
Shot in ravishing black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, Cold War is wilfully romantic, passing over the ordinary stuff of life to focus on the earth-shaking moments of desire between Wiktor and Zula: when they fix on each other across crowded rooms; when they collide in secret; when they (painfully) part.
Pawlikowski loosely based the lovers on his parents, and then gave them an epic cinematic arc, spanning years, styles and cities — Warsaw, Paris, Berlin — as the pair are caught up in the artistic shifts and political circumstances of the mid-20th century.
Cold War is director Pawel Pawlikowski’s third collaboration with his muse Joanna Kulig. (Supplied: Palace Films)
Time certainly matters, and history almost always weathers love.
When the film opens in 1949, Wiktor is recording the folk songs of rural Poland alongside fellow musician Irena (Agata Kulesza) and state official Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). They’re preparing to set up a song and dance troupe to perform peasant music. (The troupe is based on the ensemble Mazowsze, whose current members perform in the film.)
This long lead-in establishes the film’s striking visual style. With a look that is reminiscent of the work of mid-20th century photographers like Andre Kertesz and Brassai, Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal switch between still frames and the chaotic motion of dance to express the tension between the rushing force of love and art and the restrictions of communist Poland.
Cinematographer Lukasz Zal cites Citizen Kane and Casablanca as inspirations for his approach to composition and contrast. (Supplied: Palace Films)
After a flurry of folk songs, mud and chickens, we’re introduced to Zula, an evasive young singer with a troubled past who auditions for the troupe with a pretty bland rendition of a song from a Russian movie. Irena isn’t impressed but Wiktor is smitten. From that moment, his heart is hers.
And so, after an extended period of exchanged looks and charged moments, they fall into a smoking hot affair.
But the realities of the communist regime quickly make themselves felt. The troupe is co-opted by the state to sing communist propaganda, leading to Irena’s departure. Zula reveals she is reporting on Wiktor to Kaczmarek, who it turns out, is making a few moves of his own. And, because cinematic love stories need tragic separation, our lovers are soon caught apart — one behind the iron curtain and the other living free in Paris.
Borys Szyc plays Lech Kaczmarek, the troupe’s manager and Communist party supervisor. (Supplied: Palace Films)
From then on their relationship plays out in a cascade of stolen, illicit meetings, as the years gradually wear at their expressions, and their artistic journeys move in different directions. By the time they get a chance at a life together in Paris, life has changed them, and things are not quite as they imagined.
The headstrong Zula gets a rough deal as a woman caught in a repressive patriarchal time, and Kulig plays her with a powerful balance of lightness and heaviness.
In a film where everything is communicated through glances and gestures, she conveys an immense range of emotions with her eyes.
There is the look she gives Wiktor before they first have sex, and the one she gives Kaczmarek at the film’s second turning point.
The love affair between Wiktor and Zula spans 15 years across rural Poland, Paris, East Berlin and Yugoslavia. (Supplied: Palace Films)
Pawlikowski (best known for his Oscar-winning film Ida) has mastered the merger of the elegant look of 20th century European cinema with the clear underlying structure of Hollywood storytelling, making for an experience that will charm both lovers of arthouse cinema and those who prefer more mainstream fare.
His film is full of perfect lines that say multitudes, like when Zula explains her backstory: “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference,” she says — adding, after a moment: “Don’t worry, he didn’t die.”
And as the theme song, Two Hearts, morphs from a spare traditional folk song to a rousing choral anthem, to a regret-filled lounge-jazz number, fans of Michelangelo Antonioni will notice that Zula performs the latter version in a bar called Eclipse.
There’s shades of Casablanca in Cold War, and it sometimes plays like a polished, commercial version of Philippe Garrel’s 1979 cult favourite L’Enfant Secret, with its doomed affair told through gestures, meetings and partings.
This is a shimmering, seductive film. It tells Wiktor and Zula’s love story as we remember ours; as a series of heartbreaking moments of desire, yearning, atrophy and despair.
Cold War is in cinemas from December 26.