By Peg Aloi
Cold War is a timeless story of romantic love, and its persistence in the face of upheaval.
Cold War, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, AMC Boston Common 19.
Filled with music from many genres, from folk to jazz to rock and roll, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a sumptuous, sad, and often thrilling story of love set mostly in post-war Poland. A stunning mise en scene is established with the first frame: shot in black and white (in a 4:3 aspect ratio, also used for Pawlikowski’s 2013’s award-studded Ida), the cinematography (shot by Ida‘s DP, Lukasz Zal) lends a plaintive, crystal-sharp beauty to the story, loosely based on the relationship of the filmmaker’s own parents.
At the start of the film, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is working with a documentary film crew to record the traditional songs and dances of Polish peasants as performed by local villagers. He holds auditions for a choral and dance performance, and when young Zula (Joanna Kulig) sings, he is impressed by her strong voice and smitten by her charisma. Mature beyond her years, Zula coldly relates how she murdered her own father after he sexually assaulted her; and yet, she does not seem traumatized or angry, merely determined. Wiktor’s fascination deepens. They become lovers; Zula’s musical talents are nurtured by Wiktor in rehearsals. The choral group begins their performances for locals; these spellbinding musical sequences feature simple folk songs of love and loss, with couples dancing in elaborate traditional costumes. Audience members are mesmerized, some of them visibly transported by the music as it invigorates their own memories or nationalistic pride.
Soon enough, a Soviet government official decides this group is the very thing to promote Stalinist ideology. When the troupe is invited on a tour to Berlin, Wiktor and Zula decide to escape and experience the freer parts of Europe. But Zula chooses not to cross the border with Wiktor — they are separated for a time. The film then traverses the years when the lovers carry on separately, in various locations, such as Paris, where Wiktor works as a musician. Zula eventually becomes a well-loved jazz singer, but it’s clear her love of performance is no longer connected, in a meaningful way, with her surroundings. Their love remains passionate but, as their lives continue to diverge, they both seem resigned to not being able to be together during turbulent times.
There is so much about this film to savor. Despite the timeline, taking place over fifteen years, the film is relatively short (84 minutes), as if to underscore Wiktor and Zula’s fleeting moments together. Could their story have been more developed? Perhaps, but I liked the story’s efficient manner of relaying the passage of years with richly-conceived scenes. The music is like a river that links the characters to their formative years, a means of bridging time. The feeling evoked is one of contrasting worlds, a see-sawing balance of beauty and bleakness, perhaps echoing the contrasting temperaments of the lovers: Zula’s volatile strength, Wiktor’s patient steadfastness The haunting cinematography dramatizes Cold War‘s emotional chiaroscuro with nuanced tension. Kulig’s performance is unforgettable, to the point it becomes more Zula’s story rather than Wiktor’s, the narrative of a young gifted artist buffeted by winds of change, steadied by a passion she can only express intermittently. Cold War exhilarates more than it saddens: like its lovers, it grasps for vitality in odd places. It is a timeless story of romantic love, and its persistence in the face of upheaval.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.