Paweł Pawlikowski



Joanna Kulig

Tomasz Kot









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

Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot in 2018's "Cold War."


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.