Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest feature, hot off the Acadamy Award success from his latest art-house venture with Ida, is a cold, dark, but profoundly expressionistic project that depicts the 15-year long relationship of a tired composer and his romanticised protégée against the backdrop of the titular Cold War in 1950s Europe. It’s also another testament to the fact that Pawlikowski is perhaps the most inspiring art house director living today. It’s that good.
Inspired by and dedicated to his parents, whom Pawlikowski describes as “strong, wonderful people, but as a couple…a never-ending disaster”, Cold War is a deeply personal project for the acclaimed Polish director – an almost biographical depiction of his own parent’s destructive relationship.
This nuance remains consistent throughout the film’s entirety, and Pawlikowski is not afraid to depict love in its truest form: the initial infatuation, the sex, the jealousy, the confrontations – he ensures realism through Wiktor (Tomasz Kotz) and Zulu’s (Joanna Kulig) blossoming relationship. There are moments of true romance; their drunken embraces on the dance floor, but there are also moments of destructiveness; scenes where they are in constant confrontation fuelled by jealousy and frustration. It’s a remarkable depiction of pure, unadulterated romance.
Said romance is brought to life not only by the love Wiktor and Zula share for one another but by also the music that warms the diegesis. The prevalence of music has always been an influence on Pawlikowski’s works, dictating the mood with meticulousness in Ida and Summer of Love, but in Cold War it’s brought directly to the fore. The pair meet each other through their shared adoration for music, Viktor being an acclaimed composer and Zula being a promising vocalist on the margins of society – they are both brought together through Viktor’s search for Polish talent. The film boasts a collection of heartfelt, melancholic and poignant classical notes that seem to encapsulate every emotion that Pawlikowski intends to capture – an impressive feat brought to life by a duo of unimprovable performances by Kotz and Kulig.
And unimprovable the duo truly are. Very little dialogue is shared between the pair, and even when there is it is mostly always explosive with curses and untamed hatred, but the performances are at their best when not a single word is uttered. There’s a great deal of physicality in their presences on-screen, the twinkle in their eyes as they warmly embrace each other in an open field, their long, sullen walks through Europe’s war-torn cities; they complement each other to perfection. The film is very much anchored by their performances, without them, it would crumble into cliché and predictability. And as for Tomasz Kot, it’s unfortunate that he will not be gracing our screens as the next Bond villain following Danny Boyle’s dramatic departure from the franchise. He would have been perfect for the role.
But besides thematically impressive, Cold War is also visually stimulating. Shot entirely in monochrome (rubbing shoulders with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma of the same year) and boxed in via Academy ratio, Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is mesmerising; his camerawork favouring a more observational aesthetic by simply following the proceedings as they come, slowly and steadily shifting from one frame to another and once again proving that simplicity does not come at the expense of eloquence. Yet what is most interesting is the film’s sense of height. Despite the almost claustrophobic aspect ratio, the positioning of the actors within the frame allows for these stunning monochromatic open skies that tie in neatly with the central theme of the piece: hopefulness. It’s a film about one woman finding love and opportunity from a man in difficult times, using her talent as a scapegoat for social entrapment.
I think Cold War could benefit from being a little longer, at points it feels like Richard Linklater’s entire Before trilogy condensed into 88-minutes, but there’s enough thematic richness there to feel fully invested in the characters and their destructive relationship. It’s a ‘can’t live with them/can’t live without them’ affair that transcends genre conventions. It’s part-romance, part-musical, part-drama – but a wholly inspiring tale that feels orgasmically cinematic with a beautifully enigmatic denouement that will have you in tears by the time the final scene fades to black.
Directed by: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc