“One of the best films of the year. “
Pawel Pawlikowski has crafted a film that breathes life into multiple mid-century time periods and settings with the ease and authority of a master instrumentalist at play. Cold War, though not his first feature, is the Polish director’s second in a row shot in meticulously framed, gorgeously composed Academy-ratio monochrome. This approach began with the immensely celebrated Ida, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2015; yet while Ida’s plotting and method achieve their affecting levels of character development and artistic storytelling through a more bleak, distanced tone, Pawlikowski has imbued his latest with a pleasant amount of levity, joy, cinematic tricks, and transcendent musical sequences. It is no understatement to say Cold War ought to be regarded as one of the best films of the year.
The story follows fifteen years of two parallel paths: that of complicated, tragically-fated lovers Wiktor and Zula, and that of complicated, tragically-fated Poland itself. The first scenes follow Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and his team as they traverse the Polish mountain area in 1949, as part of a post-war effort to reinvigorate national pride through revitalizing traditional music. Through their search for singers and dancers for a government-sponsored traveling troupe, Wiktor meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a captivating and immensely talented young woman, whose beauty is complemented well by her snarky wit. (During her singing audition for the troupe, she is told by Wiktor’s colleague that they have heard enough, to which she responds “Just the chorus,” and plows ahead, singing over the ‘Halt’ order — an example of the film’s wry and welcome sense of humour.) Their romance develops as the troupe’s tour radius grows larger and larger, encompassing more and more of the Soviet Union, until they are so well-known that the government decides to use them as a mouthpiece for its propagandic interests. More humour, albeit a darker tone of it, is on display as a government official suggests that they edit the carefree and poetic lyrics of the age-old folk songs the troupe normally sings, to better acquaint the citizenry with the government’s achievements, such as agricultural reform.
Pawlikowski explores these dichotomous paths — a growing, twisting romance and a gradually darkening society — in masterful contrast. Stalinism creeps in the edges of the love story with a breathtaking and unnerving progression, at one point literally coming out of nowhere as a massive depiction of Stalin rises above the dancers with nightmarish grandeur in one of their later performances. Most remarkably, the story of Wiktor and Zula becomes intractably interwoven with the imbalanced levels of freedom and artistry inside and out of the Soviet Union, for as Wiktor longs to leave and stay out, so does Zula question where her home truly is, and should be, leading her to some ill-advised returns to hostile territory. The perverted display of the traditional dancers performing Stalinist messages is contrasted with the liberally expressive Parisian musical scene as the action shifts to the mid-fifties, with some pitch-perfect jazz sequences offering some of the most pleasant monochrome pieces of filmmaking in my memory. Whatever possessed Pawlikowski to include so many musical scenes, from the introduction of Paris through a jazz solo to Wiktor’s alarmingly cacophonic piano playing as he experiences great loss, to the magnificent sequence where Zula throws herself around a bar to the tune of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets, and most briefly but beautifully in a romantic moment between the two as they share a dance to “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” this film treats its soundtrack incredibly well.
Credit must also go to the leading couple of Kot and Kulig, who ground the artistry in their compelling faces and physicalities; there are times where entire monologues of meaning are delivered in a silent glance or movement of the face. Also remarkable are the supporting performers, who represent the world outside Wiktor and Zula’s bumpy romance, from the stocky government stooge with a surprising amount of heart, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), to the stern but defiant musical director Irena (Agata Kulesza) to the amusingly pretentious French poetess Juliette (Jeanne Balibar).
It came as delightful news when Pawlikowski was awarded Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Cold War premiered, and where I first saw the film. At the time, I would have said it was pretty good, maybe a niche art film crowd will like it. But on second viewing, I must say Cold War is much more: just as riveting as it is beautiful, just as musical as it is dramatic, just as prestigious as it is fun. Highly recommended viewing — and an excellent example of last minute scheduling .
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 21 June)
Go to Cold War at the EIFF here