Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski (story), Pawel Pawlikowski (screenplay), Janusz Glowacki (screenplay), Piotr Borkowski (screenplay with the collaboration of)
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Syzc
Runtime: 89 mins
MPAA Rating: R
Cold War is a dramatic romance set against the backdrop of a 1950s Soviet-controlled Poland. A man and woman of strikingly different backgrounds and mannerisms become passionately and almost cosmically intertwined as their relationship manages to stay afloat across a whole host of personal, political, geographic, and temporal conflicts. The setup is simple enough, but the execution is where the film’s merit truly lies.
The aforementioned lovers first meet at a sort of Eastern-bloc-era Polish version of American Idol audition where accomplished pianist and conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is spotting homegrown talent to perform in the state-sponsored song-and-dance troupe Mazurek. Zula (Joanna Kulig), who we later learn has conned her way into being there, stands out to him during her audition, and he is quickly smitten. She too quickly returns the favor. From there, their tumultuous romance evolves across several countries over fifteen years, hitting passionate highs and contentious lows. It is very clearly established that their relationship is a part of destiny, a universal connection that will always be reestablished despite both internal and external adversities. This film integrates the complicated Cold War European politics into the narrative as such forces are the biggest source of external adversity that their relationship faces. I openly admit there is probably a large amount of political subtext and bits of cultural significance that are lost on me due to my lack of detailed familiarity with life in the depicted European countries during the 1950s. While there is plenty to glean by viewing the film from a political angle, the relationship feels larger than any political turmoil and the historical events of any one period in time.
This film moves briskly across the lengthy time span that it covers. I rarely advocate for such an alteration, but I believe this film should have been longer, particularly the first act. The romance is just sort of stated, and it just is a fact you accept from then on. I wish there had been just a bit more development. Consequently, I was not incredibly invested in the relationship as the film progressed, and did not really connect with either of the leads who both change rapidly as their lives move forward. That is not to say that the two leads do not have chemistry when on screen. Both Kot and Kulig give talented performances (particularly Kulig who is also able to showcase her singing abilities), and you are able to understand their unique temperaments and personalities as well as the emotions they are attempting to convey from scene to scene. However, the film really expects you to fill in quite a lot of gaps, and I do not think it did quite enough to earn my full investment.
Every scene in this movie is absolutely gorgeous. Opting for black-and-white and a 4:3 aspect ratio, Pavelski is able to harken back to the older days of cinema that are more concurrent with the time period in which the events are set. The square-ish 4:3 aspect ratio is used particularly well as a means to draw focus to characters’ faces within the frame. Speaking of which, the framing and lighting are essentially flawless throughout the film. For every beautifully arranged still shot, there is an equally aesthetically pleasing tracking shot. There are many complex scenes that involve the camera panning nearly 360 degrees requiring precise direction of all actors within a three-dimensional space. One of the standout dynamic shots in the film follows a drunken Zula as she jumps into a crowded dance floor and begins swinging about from partner to partner to the tune of the uptempo “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley & His Comets. Such scenes are what set this film apart and give it life.
With regards to art and sound design, this film is littered with traditional instrumentation, chorus pieces, song and dance numbers, and jazz performances which are all conducted and choreographed beautifully and serve to glue the film together from scene to scene. All of the music and dance appears to be performed in single takes by actual musicians and performers which heightens the quality of the entertainment and helps cement the reality of the cultural settings. The production design is attuned to the time period, and nothing ever feels fake or anachronistic. The monochrome color palette helps contribute to the burdensome feeling of life in the Cold War-era and the overall somber mood of the film.
I really enjoyed this film on a visual level and my eyes stayed engaged for the full 90 minutes. I wish more of the character drama really grabbed me though I could clearly tell that this story was written with great personal care. It was not surprising to me that Pavelski had loosely based this film on his parents’ lives (in fact, the two lead characters’ names are the same as Pawlikowski’s parents’ names) as the final credits allude to. Though it might not interest everyone, it is one of the most expertly-crafted films of the year, and I will remember many of the images it presented to me. At the end of the day, what else is art supposed to do?
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