Review: “Cold War”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Many of the greatest film romances of all time are sweeping epics, in runtime and scale but also in the way they probe into so many aspects of their characters’ lives and relationships.  Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski does almost the opposite of this with his romantic drama “Cold War.”  The film, propelled by a sense of urgency throughout, maintains a larger than life feel, but it keeps the focus on the romance between its two leads, as they come in and out of each others’ lives over many years.

“Cold War” opens at the end of the 1940s.  The director of a traveling folk music show in post-war Poland (Wiktor, played by Tomasz Kot), is immediately attracted to a young woman who auditions to sing and dance in the show (Zula, played by Joanna Kulig).  They quickly fall in love, but as the Cold War escalates in Europe they find their show transforming from a celebration of heritage to a propaganda machine for the Communist party.  Wiktor wants to flee Poland and go to France, where they can have creative and personal freedom, but their temperamental and creative differences keep pulling him and Zula apart.

The film clocks in at a mere 89 minutes, but Pawlikowski makes every one of those minutes count.  The story spans from the late 1940s to the mid-60s, skipping a few years at a time.  It’s evident that in those in between years a lot happens to both Wiktor and Zula that would be compelling material for the film, but Pawlikowski instead allows the viewer to fill in those blanks.  And really, it isn’t necessary that we see all that happens; we get just the amount of information we need, allowing the film to wrap us up in the passion and drama of Wiktor and Zula, who Pawlikowski based in part on his own parents.  We feel the emotional charge of all their reunions, even if as the viewer we just saw them together mere minutes ago.  Kot and Kulig both give electric performances.  Wiktor is the more low-key romantic of the pair, content to play jazz in Parisian clubs, while Zula is more headstrong.  They can’t get along when they’re together, but they also can’t bear to be apart.

Joanna Kulig as the volatile but talented Zula

“Cold War” features gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, lending a starkness to the bleak and snowy Polish landscapes, but also enhancing the bright lights of Paris, the two primary locales in which the story is set.  Pawlikowski brilliantly balances multiple elements in his lean but rich screenplay.  It’s surprisingly humorous in addition to being incredibly romantic, further bolstered by the film’s beautiful and occasionally haunting music, which encompasses everything from folk to jazz.  The looming international conflict is ever-present, even if it isn’t the main subject of the film as the title would suggest.  It most comes into play with regards to Wiktor and Zula’s music careers, and how their freedom of expression is affected; in this way, as well as being a lush romance, “Cold War” is also a commentary on how politics and art intersect.

“Cold War” is a stunningly beautiful movie, with a classic feel about it that makes it seem like it comes from another time.  It may be brief, but Pawlikowski gives his audience a lot to unpack in that time, enough to warrant multiple viewings—and enough to allow it to succeed where other romance films are lacking.

Runtime: 89 minutes. Rated R.

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