With its stark black-and-white photography, impeccably composed and framed in Academy Ratio, the art house aesthetic of Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ comes fully on display in the first moments of the work. Yet this tangled tale of love at a time of conflict is far more than an academic exercise in style. Warm passions, musical energy and the dynamic relationships of its characters provide fire at the heart of this powerful piece.
Told over many decades, ‘Cold War’ is the story of a conductor, pianist and ethnographer named Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) who stumbles across a young singer and dancer named Zula (Joanna Kulig). The two find in each other a pragmatic as much as a passionate connection. Each uses the other in their own way for their own benefit. Their relationship is one of complications and frustrations, where competing interests provide blocks only to have other circumstances bring them even closer together.
As a poetess blithely points out midway through the film, there’s also “metaphor” at work, with the two lovers paradoxically separated and entwined just as the Soviets and the West were during that period. It’s this tango-like push and pull that provides both narrative and emotional drive, as we as an audience are swept away along with the characters’ various fortunes.
Pawlikowski’s craft has Kubrickian elements that are truly intoxicating, with the shift between heightened emotion and chilly dismissal equally effective. As the film plays out, we’re drawn deeply into the lovers’ lives, the connection between the two of them a cipher for the similar struggles of identity for their nation recovering from the ravages and consequences of World War II.
The performances by Kulig and Kot are sublime. Both characters are injected with a depth that’s rare to witness. Zula is a fierce survivor whose moxie and survival instinct make her part seductress and part femme fatale, yet a fully realized woman who must do what she must in order to thrive. Wiktor too is a fascinating, complicated individual who makes decisions that aren’t always for the best reasons, but always out of the turmoil between passion and pragmatism.
At a brisk 85 minutes, this is a lean, impressively accessible film that still manages to elevate above more than a handful of works that take on such fragile, frenetic relationships. The execution of the film is worth celebrating, from the dance and musical sequences right through to moments of quiet intimacy. Combined with a thoroughly affecting tale of doomed love, Pawlikowski takes it up to a whole new level.
A brilliant, brash look at a dark and torrid relationship that still manages to find moments of lightness and grace, ‘Cold War’ is a modern classic – a film of romance, conflict and betrayal that cuts like glass but bleeds red with passion at the same time.