An enthralling and beautifully bleak love story.
From the very first scenes all the way to the haunting and unforgettable ending, Pawel Pawlowski’s new feature length kept me transfixed and in utter awe. Throughout its short but very effective story, in which we follow the beautiful but tragic love story with our main characters, Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), Cold War proves with finesse to be a master work in every single way: production design, music, cinematography and acting.
Much like Paweloski’s previous feature, 2013’s Ida, the movie has a short runtime (barely over 80 minutes), yet despite this the film has such an epic scope that makes it seem so much richer narratively and thematically. Through a timeline that spans nearly a decade, we follow Wiktor and Zula’s thin ice and volatile, yet nevertheless enchanting relationship, starting as a teacher and student relationship, then quickly developing into a passionate if unpredictable romance. As a cynical and weary man, Wiktor wishes to run away from the communist East and make a life in the freedom of the West together with Zula, yet she refuses to run away with him in order to stay with the dance company that Wiktor founded. Most of the film’s first half are therefore snippets of the brief encounters between Wiktor and Zula throughout the years through a diverse selection of locations, ranging from Berlin to Paris and Czechoslovakia, the reunions between the two being just as painful to the audience as it is to Zula and Wiktor. Even when they eventually manage to reunite permanently and move in to Paris, their romance remains as unsteady as ever, hitting both highs and lows until the bleak and tragic ending that pays homage to one very famous Shakespeare play.
Naturally, we can see that the director made good use of the brief runtime in order to put a painstaking amount of attention to every single shot. Although filmed in black and white and with a tight 4:3 aspect ratio, the detail in the shots are crystal clear and gorgeous to look at. Whether it’s a medium shot, establishing shot or just an extreme close up, every frame is organised in the way the director wanted, full of hidden meaning and subtext. For example one particular scene has Wiktor standing relaxed and alone with his back against a giant mirror, while the rest of his dance group is seen dancing and celebrating through the reflection of the mirror, symbolising Wiktor’s detached and solitary nature, but obviously even more meaning can be dug out of just this one shot, among a sea of other scenes just begging to be re-watched and analysed in detail. The decision to shoot the film in black and white serves both as a homage to the period, as well as to create a harsh and cold look that symbolises the constant situation the characters in the film find themselves in. Nevertheless, the immaculate framing, set design and even clothing are so lavish and well-done, the scenery so exquisite that the whole style of the film could be summed up in the words ‘beautifully bleak’.
Of course, like every great film, Cold War needs strong and complex characters performed by exceptional and talented actors, and just like everything else, the film exceeds at that. Tomasz Kot portrays Wiktor as a man with the constant air of mystery engulfing him. We barely know anything about Wiktor and his backstory, as he is a very introvert and quiet man, yet nevertheless extremely likeable due to Kot’s natural charisma and his endearing infatuation for Zula, which almost borders on parody. He even refers to her more than once as the ‘love of his life’. Wiktor’s pain when he is forced to be separated from Zula is so well expressed through micro expressions and other subtle body language movements that make the character all the more reliable and interesting.
Joanna Kulig on the other hand offers a polar opposite performance as Zussanna. Her character is a fierce, strong and independent woman with highly ambitious plans for her life. Her introductory scene involve her persuading a fellow dance troupe member into helping her give an edge over the rest of the competition. She frequently comes in conflict with other characters due to her temper and unfiltered bluntness. Ironically enough and very tongue in cheek, she is at one point refereed as a ‘femme fatale’ which is rather appropriate as she has Wiktor getting many times in trouble in pursuit of her and it is her rebellious and extrovert nature that causes frictions in their relationship in the second half of the film. Watching these two polar opposite characters interact and attempt to pursue an impossible romance is truly an odd delight that is strengthened by the impeccable acting and razor-sharp pacing.
There was one element of cold war which I found very unexpecting and it surprised me in the best of ways, and that was the musical side of the film. Cold War features some truly breathtakingly executed dance and musical scenes. Pawel Pawlowski’s Polish sensibilities are on full display here, as the musical numbers, ranging from dancing, signing or both, all taken and inspired by rural Polish folk music that will surely bring joy to you and make you wish they would last longer, or that the whole film was based around the dance company.
Cold war is an incredible piece of cinema that kept me thoroughly satisfied and amazed me with its superbly written and acted characters, gorgeous cinematography and fantastic musical numbers. It is a must see film and a strong Oscar contender; I am super excited for the director’s next feature.