'Cold War' ('Zimna Wojna'): Film Review

A thrilling exploration of romantic disappointment with a killer soundtrack.

A companion piece of sorts to the acclaimed 'Ida,' this is yet another exploration of Soviet-era angst in Poland from director Pawel Pawlikowski.

Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski's latest film, is bittersweet and unbearably lovely, a sad ballad of two lovers who can't stand to stay apart but also sometimes can't stand each other either. Achingly romantic but also wryly realistic about the destructive power of eros, the drama spans a decade and a bit from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. It tracks the tempestuous relationship between pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and singer-dancer Zula (Joanna Kulig), two Poles who shuttle back and forth across the Iron Curtain, from Warsaw to Paris and beyond as their passion plays out over many years.

All that jazz music, Academy-ratio monochrome cinematography and mid-century period detail in a time of Communism will inevitably evoke memories of Pawlikowski's 2013 effort, the multiple-award-winning Ida. And yet Cold War also shares clear if subtle traits with the director's other features, England-set tales of doomed love Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love (2004), and the Parisian-centered ghost story The Woman in the Fifth (2011), while retaining its own bewitching singularity. Some might quibble that a few elements feel oddly truncated or underdeveloped; for instance, the plot strand involving Ida's luminous co-star Agata Kulesza shutters all too abruptly.

But Pawlikowski finds an elegant, melancholy way to resolve what might have been a formless and sprawling saga, one inspired partly by his own parents' unhappy marriage. A vigorous lap round the worldwide festival and art house circuit is assured, and more could be possible with the right distribution muscle behind it. At the very least, Cold War ought to boost album sales for groups such as Mazowsze and Slask, Polish folk music ensembles much like the fictional one featured here, and French-inflected jazz.

Indeed, Cold War is a musicologist's delight, featuring an eclectic swathe of songs that range from traditional "mountain" tunes and Soviet-era hymns to agricultural reform, classical pieces to snatches of George Gershwin (phrases from the song "I Loves You, Porgy" play a particularly key role) and other jazz numbers up to Bill Haley & His Comets' "Rock Around the Clock," the last as much a metonym for the end of a certain era as the death of Stalin or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Hopefully, someone will find a way to release an official film soundtrack for this, or at the very least a Spotify playlist.

The food of love, as it's described in Twelfth Night, music is the very stuff that brings the protagonists together originally. When the story starts in 1949, Wiktor is scouring the war-ravaged Polish countryside with his lover-colleague Irena (Kulesza), recording performances in the wild by ordinary people on a reel-to-reel, escorted by their philistine driver Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc).

Over time — fades to black and subtitles reveal the temporal and geographic settings for the big jumps throughout, but it's often impossible to tell how much time is passing in the interludes between these markers — Wiktor and Irena's ethnomusicological efforts transmute into a state-sponsored gig creating a school for singers and dancers, performers who will become the players in the Mazurek Ensemble. Pressured by their socialist overlords, the ensemble will become a propaganda instrument, showcasing the talent and Aryan beauty of Poles in capitals throughout the Eastern Bloc.

During the audition process, Wiktor meets Zula, a fierce blonde beauty with broad Slavic cheekbones and cunning eyes who, it turns out, is on probation for using a knife on her own father after he mistook her for her mother. Zula's singing voice isn't quite as pure as some of the other young women, but she has "something else," a magnetism and stage presence that make an indelible impression, a description that fits Kulig herself, who can turn on a dime from looking gorgeous to frowsy and back.

Before long, Wiktor and Zula have become lovers, and Irena swiftly leaves the picture, although Kaczmarek only continues to climb the ladder of political success, and quietly lusts after Zula from afar. She casually reveals to Wiktor one day that she is reporting back to Kaczmarek on Wiktor himself, parlaying this domestic espionage to her own advantage within the ensemble. When the ensemble comes to East Berlin to perform, Wiktor decides to defect to the West by simply walking across the checkpoint in the French sector, and he asks Zula to come with him. She says she will but at the last minute, afraid that she will have nothing if she goes, changes her mind and stays behind in the East.

And so it goes, with little jumps one or two or four years along, showing the lovers at different points. Wiktor becomes a bebop pianist in a Parisian boite, tickling the ivories onstage and those of poetess Juliette (a cameo for Jeanne Balibar that fits her like a perfectly cut black dress) in his garret apartment, although he never forgets "the woman of his life." Zula shows up out of nowhere in Paris, and flits away. He travels to relatively safe Yugoslavia to see her perform, and when she spots him in the audience her smile evaporates and she gazes with tragic longing back at him before the secret service drag him off and put him on a train back to Paris.

At last, somewhere in the 50s, they can finally be together. But the ecstatic sex and artistic collaboration can't paper over the cracks in their relationship, and it all goes sour, thrillingly refusing to go down the route viewers would expect from more syrupy period romances. Because here it's not bad timing or rotten luck or the cruel hand of fate that ruins things for our lovers, but common overfamiliarity that leads to contempt, poverty and unrealistic expectations, plus a big splash of alcoholism. Zula and Wiktor are their own most rabid "shippers," but they're blind to the glaring fact that they are fatally ill-suited to one another and too selfish and flawed to really change.

That anti-romantic message may be too bitter a pill for general audiences to swallow, even if the rhapsodic musicality of the film helps it go down easier. More sweetness is added by Lukasz Zal's exquisite lighting and lensing, equal to the excellence he and Ryszard Lenczewski achieved on Ida, but this time with less snow and chiaroscuro. Despite the baked-in anguish and the title itself, Cold War is a sultrier, sexier, more sunlit film that evokes the 16mm cinematography of the period and yet doesn't ape it down to the grain.

Production companies: Opus Film, Film4, BFI Film Fund, Protagonist Pictures, Apocalypso Pictures, MK Productions
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cedric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Ferency, Adam Woronowicz, Anna Zagorska
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Screenwriters: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, Piotr Borkowski
Producers: Tanya Seghatchian, Ewa Puszczynska
Executive producers:
Nathanael Karmitz, Lizzie Francke, Rohit Khattar, John Woodward, Jeremy Gawade, Daniel Battsek
Co-producers: Piotr Dziecio?, Malgorzata Bela
Director of photography: Lukasz Zal
Production designer: Katarzyna Sobanska, Marcel Slawinski
Costume designer: Aleksandra Staszko
Editor: Jaroslaw Kaminski
Music and song arrangements: Marcin Masecki
Casting: Magdalena Szwarcbart
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Protagonist Pictures/mk2

98 minutes