COLD WAR. Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, and Agata Kulesza. Also starring Boris Szyc, and Cedric Kahn. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language and sex). 88 min.
This Polish, subtitled film is a period drama about the love attachment of a musical director-pianist and a young singer in Communist Poland. The film’s director, Pawel Pawlikowski won the award for Best Director at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and the movie was awarded Best Foreign Language Film by the New York Film Critics Circle. The film is loosely inspired by the lives of the Director’s parents. The story and the screenplay for the film were written by Pawlikowski, and the film takes place across three decades in a divided, postwar Europe.
In the film, a musical director, Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) discovers a young singer, Zula Lichon (Joanna Kulig) who is on parole for attempting to murder her abusive father. They fall rapturously in love, and the film tracks their love through time. They are from different backgrounds and have different temperaments, and their love is set against the background of the Cold War in Poland.
Two years before the communist government formed the Polish People’s Republic, composer and pianist, Wiktor and his producer Irena (Agata Kulesza) travel through isolated rural communities in Poland trying to find recruits for their travelling folk-music school. In the auditions, Wiktor finds himself inexplicably attracted to a young woman who comes before him, called Zula. She doesn’t perform a folk song, but a song from a Soviet film that she has seen. Wiktor chooses her “professionally”, but Irena knows that is not the real reason why.
The photography in the film is exceptional. Every frame is artfully composed. Pawlikowski (co-) photographs as well as directs, and he focuses the camera on scenes that force the viewer to differentiate foreground from background, and characters are framed to intensify the key features in the scenes being photographed. The effect creates tension that grabs the viewer’s attention. Pawlikowski additionally photographs his scenes to subtly provide comment on what is happening politically. The effect is distinctive, informative, and highly creative.
Music plays an especially important part in the film. It is vital to the development of the two main characters, and it mirrors changes in their circumstances. Wiktor refers to the album on which he and Zula are collaborating as “our child”. The movie itself has minimal dialogue, and Pawlikowski directs to give form and shape maximum impact. Music is used by him as a narrative tool, and the device works amazingly well.
Given the passionate intensity of the relationship that is conveyed in the film, it is inevitable that the two lovers separate, which they do several times. The film draws its dramatic power from the fact that it portrays two individuals trying to save one another, living in co-dependency on a journey that is taking them toward self-destruction. The effect is reinforced by especially tight editing.This is a starkly visual film that is accompanied by a very lean narrative. It is the kind of movie where Pawlikowski provides the viewer only with the bare essentials, while making sure that the film looks and sounds as good as possible. The whole movie is shot in black and white; the acting is magnificent; and scenes are rich in period detail. Politically the scenes highlight effectively the extent of Soviet obedience and cultural conformity in the environment that surrounds the lovers.
This is an extraordinary film where the artifices of the Director create an intimate love story with enormous power. The decades-long love affair between Wiktor and Zula crosses the boundaries of class and nationhood, and brilliantly incorporates the post-war tensions of East vs. West. This is not a movie for Christmas cheer, just a must-see one. The story of Wiktor and Zula is a tale of impossible love in impossible times. Their romance is shaped by political upheavals, and their fateful relationship - leading the viewer towards a totally unanticipated ending - is one of yearning, passion, love, and betrayal.
Peter W Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Released December 26th., 2018