Cold War (2018) – dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

One of the oddest comforts of romantic love is the expectation that conflict is inevitable. Most love stories are only somewhat aware of this. Couples bicker early on–perhaps disliking one another on the onset–only to overcome their own hangups and surrender to the heart. And the story ends before we get a chance to see the real nature of a relationship. Few stories get at the daily, sometimes easy, sometimes impossible struggle of maintaining a relationship. The necessary truth is that love doesn’t solve everything. When a relationship does sour, however, there is always hope that those initial affections aren’t beyond repair. Sadly, the routine minutia of sustaining a romance isn’t quite as thrilling as that initial impact.

Cold War exists somewhere in the middle. A tribute to director Pawel Pawlikowski’s own parents, his mid-20th century melodrama is a phenomenal display of the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. A sort of update of Jean Vigo’s seminal L’Atalante, or even Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy in about a quarter of the duration, Cold War is a leisurely little epic, spanning a decade-and-a-half of fits and starts, of near-misses, and of imperfect souls finding a perfect love. Pawlikowski’s personal love letter to his mother and father is impeccably executed, and carefully sneaks up on a person. Restrained, deceptively minimal, and contemplative, Cold War is a stunner, and one of the loveliest romances of the decade.

In post-WWII Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is traveling all over the frozen country with Irena (Agata Kulesza) and Mr. Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), in search of performers for their musical troupe. During the audition process, they come across Zula (Joanna Zulig), whose enormous spirit Wiktor is immediately smitten with. They soon fall passionately in love with one another. Their relationship is complicated by the political climate of the day, as Soviet influence not only dictates the performances of the troupe–in one scene, they sing praises to Stalin, while an enormous banner donning his face is erected in the background–but manages to sully Wiktor’s and Zula’s bliss. When Zula admits that she’s been reporting on Wiktor to Kaczmarek, Wiktor concocts a plan to escape from Poland to Paris. Though, when the time comes to make a run, Zula gets cold feet, while Wiktor migrates to Paris.

In the next several years, Wiktor and Zula cross paths, only to lose touch as suddenly as they reconnected. And as they edge closer and closer to one another, they each go to increasing lengths just to see one another–at one point, Zula gets married so she can leave Poland, and Wiktor ends up as a POW. They also betray each other–out of fear, out of thoughtlessness, out of envy–but somehow, they always find their way back to each other, even if that’s across a performance hall, just before one of them is swept up and sent across the continent. And even as they age, change, and clash with one another, Wiktor and Zula always lean on their love for one another.

Not enough can be said about Tomasz Kot and Joanna Zulig, whose performances are as moving and realized as can be. Kot’s quietly infatuated Wiktor, silently suffering as he longs for Zula, while the slightest smile lights up the frame. But Zulig is truly the star here. Yes, her performance is much bigger, but Zulig gives Zula layers, even in her smaller moments. Take the moment where Wiktor and Zula first make love. The camera lingers on Zula’s face, so vulnerable in Wiktor’s embrace as his face hangs over hers–which is pronounced, throughout the film, in no small part due to Kot’s considerable height. Cold War is a very measured film that might fall flat without a character like Zula. Her lively, fiery disposition plays perfectly against Wiktor’s softer, subtler temperament. Together, Kot and Zulig have such a strong, and appropriately seductive dynamic. Without their connection, the film is nothing more than a muted, albeit gorgeous slog.

Perhaps so much of the allure of Cold War is how astonishing the look of the picture is. Returning to the black and white academy ratio he used in Ida, Pawlikowsi captures a sense of constriction when Wiktor and Zula are separated, and total intimacy when they share the frame. There’s also a perfect sense of place at any given time. Whether this is the decaying, often desolate Polish landscape–whose culture and customs the troupe tries and fails to preserve–or the bustling, glamorous Parisian metropolis in the film’s middle act–whose fast pace and modern culture isolates the two lovers from each other. These characters are always trapped, right to the very end, emblematic of the geopolitical conflict separating countries that are not that far from one another, as well as the inability to see or be with this one person just out of reach. And when they are in frame, one gets the sense that, for as much pain as Wiktor and Zula cause one another, they are inextricably linked, locked in insurmountable tension–reflecting the global conflict of the film’s namesake.

The first image of Cold War reveals the film in a curious manner. One man plays a kozioł biały–a sort of Eastern European variation on a bagpipe–while another plays a scattered melody on a violin. The sound they make is, on the surface, abrasive and discordant. But as the two play, the sound starts to make a certain amount of sense–or we at least key into the idea that their cacophonous machinations make sense to them. From afar, a child–presumably a stand-in for Pawlikowski–looks on with a perverse curiosity. Here, we see two people united by music, albeit through song that is inscrutable and harsh. Yet, we can’t look away. And by the end, Cold War has no definitive answer as to whether or not Wiktor and Zula are truly best for one another, but Powlikowski also doesn’t give up on them. Whether one finds this uplifting or cruel, neither is technically right or wrong. But maybe that’s what love is to Cold War. If not being with someone who excites or edifies us, but with whom we can be at peace. I think Powlikowski’s on to something there.

Rating – 9.3/10

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