Pawel Pawlikowski, Oscar-winning director of Ida, brings us another stunner: Cold War, a beautiful and bittersweet romance set against the backdrop of Cold War-wracked Europe after World War II. Musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kat) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) fall destructively in love whilst under Soviet rule and attempt to leave for Paris, both making a decision that will dent their lives forever. After winning the award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, Pawlikowski unsurprisingly makes every frame a painting, whilst simultaneously and strikingly melding the personal and the political. Cold War, further adding to its bittersweet nature, is dedicated to his parents, whom the film is inspired by.
Cold War takes us through a rough 15 years, from the countryside of Poland to various parts of Europe. Beginning in Poland, we meet Wiktor and Irena (Agata Kulesza) who look to recruit musicians and dancers to showcase Poland’s rural sound as part of the “Mazurek ensemble”. Here’s where we meet Zula, an enigmatic “colourful” young woman who apparently killed her father (“He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference”), who makes her mark by singing a duet learned from a Russian film; Wiktor is instantly infatuated.
“This is also why it feels like an instant classic – a piece of art that people will gaze and study for years”
The film opens in rural Poland, 1949, where we intimately (often in close up, with characters looking directly down the lens) engage with folk songs – which habitually contain mournful themes of lost love and hardship. Pawlikowski’s style is particularly distinct in his opening, with its 4:3 frame (academy ratio) and use of black and white not unlike Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. This is also why it feels like an instant classic – a piece of art that people will gaze and study for years; its boxy frame and reminiscence of classic Hollywood feel perfectly composed, with everything purposely in frame. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s frames are truly pieces of art; beautifully transitioning from static frames to free-form movements, echoing the musical changes in the film – from folk song to jazz, and turbulence in-between.
Subtly we see Zula transition from a young enigmatic woman to a sultry jazz singer and drunken showgirl; yet ultimately ending up in a similar place. Kulig truly owns this role as Zula, portraying much of her emotion through her eyes and, of course, her melancholy singing which is riddled with loss and desperation. Joanna Kulig is sensuous, reminiscent of Léa Seydoux and Jennifer Lawrence, knowingly mischievous and sexy, whilst keeping a front of naivety and innocence – the perfect Bond girl. Further, Tomasz Kat carries a conscious charm yet sinister look that perfectly suits his cigarette-toting, melancholy character.
Cold War is a musical that leaves much of the meaning to its songs. Its tone and pain stems from its voices and silences. The literal darkness from its black and white tone reflects the gloomy folksong and hardship of the years following World War II, leaving it undeniably haunting. It is no doubt that Cold War is a deeply personal story that Pawlikowski gives us the joy of watching unfold in the most strikingly artful way.
Thanks to Exeter Phoenix for providing this screening.