Rating: 4.5 out of 5
There is an assumption about romance films that the last decade or so of filmmaking has done well to challenge: that romance films are about two people happy for a period, sad for another, only to reconcile in the end overcoming their respective baggage and suffering through each other. Cold War, the latest film from Polish auteur Paweł Pawlikowski, is at once a wondrous achievement of classical filmmaking and an interrogation of the traditional rhythms of the romance genre. There is often a stark naivety in romance films, a childish ignorance, but Cold War is a story of a hefty love between two intense, mature individuals in an era of unrest, fear and uncertainty. Over barely ninety minutes Pawlikowski and his two leads (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot) sketch an intimate portrait about people brought together and driven apart by the forces of oppression.
The story picks up with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) a musician tasked with finding young singers for a performance troupe in communist Poland in the 1950’s. He meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) during an audition and they quickly enter a love affair. Things are not so rosy and sweet, however, Wiktor as an artist naturally has inclinations creatively that stray from the agenda of the communist party. As a result, he flees to France and their love will be challenged by borders, language and governments. The scenes of her visiting in French are both hopeful, lovely, and cripplingly brutal; the drunk dance in particular towards the end of the second act is a haunting snapshot of fleeting joy, happiness fixed towards an end, a momentary elation that has already soured with that knowledge that it will soon fade.
The cinematography in this film is gorgeous, Pawlikowski once again shoots in black and white, allowing for a naked honesty rarely seen in contemporary filmmaking. The black and white shots inflict no aesthetic judgments on the emotions of the scene, simplifying mise-en-scene to, lighting, framing and performance he allows himself focus and emotional clarity. There are very few romances as clear-eyed and frank as this. One of the final shots in Cold War, the couple lying on the floor of a bathroom, one drunk, the other crippled, might’ve been cheap and contrived in another filmmakers hands, but here it’s appropriately sloppy, heartwarming and crushing, to paraphrase Bazin; Pawlikowski has that Fellini-esque quality of storytelling where his characters find salvation in defeat, at the sheer humanity of their loss.
This is a difficult love story, where the strain is not only internal between the two individuals, but also external, their environment too is working against them. Pawlikowski captures the tension of living during the cold war, Wiktor is always looking over his shoulder, Zula collaborates with the communists only to further her personal agenda to be with Wiktor, putting herself and her position at risk in the process. The tremendous obstacles the couple are willing to overcome for their love would be nothing if the two leads did not have a genuine, unmistakable chemistry worth fighting for.
Sure, the third act might wrap up a bit quickly, but with a finale as tender as this, Cold War, ends just where it should. Love will persist, in the face of suppression, adversity and force. Love will continue to be the grand mover of events, happenings and peoples. There is a moment just towards the end of the film, where Wiktor is talking to Zula’s husband as he holds their child, there is this miraculous feeling that despite him being aware his wife was simply using his position and status to be with Wiktor, he has learned to not only accept but love their love for its strength, endurance and persistence. This is a small film of immense weight, extremely powerful but incredibly painful.