1 Hr., 28 Mins.
Cold War January 18, 2019
hen the Polish filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski was born in the fall of 1957, his parents, Zula and Wiktor, had long been involved in a sort of relationship that could be aptly described as cinematic. They first met and began a love affair while on vacation in 1949. Zula was an aspiring ballerina; Wiktor was a medical student. Their romance, though, was cut short when Wiktor was drafted into the military. That
should have been that. Yet, the split would mark the beginning of a cycle. For the next 40 years, Zula and Wiktor would get back together, break up, lose touch, and reunite. They’d have other lives and even other marriages. But nothing — not time, the Cold War, countries, or other spouses — could keep them apart in the long term.
Cold War, Pawlikowski’s first movie since 2013’s Oscar-winning Ida, dramatizes Zula and Wiktor’s relationship. Zula, played by Joanna Kulig, is reimagined as a cool, plain-spoken singer with a dark past; Wiktor, portrayed by Tomasz Kot, becomes a handsome, lanky composer. The movie covers the earlier portion of the couple’s romance. It opens in the early 1950s, when the fictionalized Wiktor is the director of a musical troupe for which Zula successfully auditions, and concludes in the mid-1960s, when the duo appears to have reached a momentary place of contentment.
In interviews, Pawlikowski has described his parents’ relationship as a “great love” — something that has been preserved in his mind as something profoundly cinematic. I find it unsurprising, then, that I ended Cold War considering it the closest thing this decade has had to genre definitives akin to Casablanca (1942) or Notorious (1946): stylish, sexy romantic movies as razor-edged as they are timeless and sweeping. The black and white of Łukasz Żal’s cinematography provides the film with an appealingly soft-focused glow that furthers a feeling of Cold War being “classic,” too.
Some of this also has to do with Kulig and Kot themselves, entrancing performers who boast a certain timelessness both together and individually. They could be stars in any era. Kulig, a hybrid of the Hitchcock blonde and the Bergman beauty, is a particular revelation. Not only does her performance have just the right amount of dramatic urgency, she also proves herself a mesmerizing dancer and vocalist. She sings all the songs on the soundtrack, which is so evocative of vintage lounge-singing that I’d assume the 1950s chanteuse Juliette Gréco was one of her peers if I didn’t know any better.
It’s a marvel that Cold War is as painlessly, overwhelmingly romantic as it is. With a conceit so grand, we can imagine an artist less gifted than Pawlikowski going too big: overstating the presence of the Cold War, over-emphasizing the volatility of Zula and Wiktor’s relationship, making the run time as unending as the relationship. But Pawlikowski sees the virtues of subtlety and understatement. Cold War is just a snippet of what it must have been like to have experienced this intense, once-in-a-lifetime relationship, but it never feels small or less than what it should have been. The specificity and eventual ambiguity lend themselves to a strange sort of completeness. It lingers in the memory. A
This review also appeared in The Daily.