I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t see nearly as many foreign language films as I should. My 2018 total so far stands at a pitiful two, having caught Loveless and A Fantastic Woman during the last awards season, and wouldn’t you just know it, as the next season starts to come around, so does my third foreign language cinema trip. This time it comes in the form of a Polish offering, director Pawel Pawlikowski’s first feature in five years, Cold War.
Set over a period of fifteen years, Cold War tells the tale of a complicated love story between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musical composer and organiser of a traditional Polish folk troupe, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), a younger, charismatic woman who auditions for him. Spanning from their first meeting in 1949 to the climax of their romance in the mid 1960s, the film takes its audience on a whirlwind tour of communist era Europe, displaying both the strictly guarded East and the freer, bohemian West, sizzling with the tension that the balance between the two worlds evoked during this time.
Equally as tumultuous as the rise of Stalin in the background is the mismatched yet magnet charged relationship between the two protagonists that takes up the foreground. We follow Wiktor and Zula as they come in and out of each other’s lives over the course of more than a decade, a short and sweet 88 minute running time that keeps the audience’s time with the characters feeling vital yet fleeting. It’s really interesting to watch a love story where rather than being star crossed, meant to be lovers, the characters are complicated human beings whose attraction to one another is so strong that it blinds them to the obvious red flags that they both possess and display. Their love is messy, and messy feels authentic.
From the mournful yet beautiful folk songs of the Polish mountains to the smooth, smoke filled standards of 1950s French jazz clubs, music is the thing that weaves a connecting thread across the fifteen years. In many ways, Cold War feels like some sort of ‘La La Land for the serious crowd’, not that La La Land isn’t serious itself, of course! Though not a musical in the sense that characters burst in to song out of context, there’s no doubting that the film is driven by its musical choices. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was more music in the film than dialogue. The different styles and tempos used in the music become evocative of the periods in the character’s live the they accompany. It proves to be a really captivating and poignant device.
As for the film’s black and white cinematography, it not only perfectly reflects the dampened spirit of a World War II recovering Europe at the time, but also provides a timeless quality that aligns the narrative with old golden age romantic classics that we have seen before. The effective difference here, though, is that there is a visceral, honest edge to the story telling that feels distinctly modern. The film feels classic yet completely fresh at the same time.
Without a doubt the shining light of the film is Joanna Kulig, who gives an utterly captivating performance as the enigmatic and alluring Zula. Kulig evokes such a wild and challenging spirit in the character, a personality that presents a stark contrast to the ever increasing seriousness and stoicism of her political and social surroundings. Whatever it is that bestows ‘star quality’ on a performer, she has it in spades. The film fizzes with electricity whenever Kulig is on screen, which thankfully, is a fair amount of the brisk 88 minutes.
As Wiktor, Tomasz Kot is tasked with presenting a much more sombre, muted character, but one who possesses enough sparkle and intensity in his eyes to be a worthy match for Kulig’s Zula. He definitely succeeds in achieving this. Together, the pair share a great chemistry, and do a lot of effective groundwork with the little time that the film allows them to establish their connection.
It has to be said once again that the music within the film is almost as big a character as the two leads. Every important second of the picture is punctuated by spot on musical accompaniment. Whether Kulig is bearing her soul over a beautiful ballad, or Kot is bringing his frustrations to life through manically improvised jazz piano, the music dictates the pace and the direction of the film, and it does so with a deft and effective touch.
Overall, Cold War is a bittersweet and emotional portrayal of problematic love set amidst even more problematic political and social times. I’m aware that I just sound like a contradiction machine right now, but the film somehow manages to feel fierce yet delicate, hopeful yet desperate, romantic yet tragic. A narrative that feels rich and complex yet lean and laser focused at the same time, a great achievement. A musical and historical journey through an endlessly fascinating period with an endlessly fascinating female protagonist in particular. You can definitely expect this one to be bagging its fair share of ‘Foreign Language’ prizes in a few months’ time.