Sadness hangs over every scene in Cold War, like a layer of smoke above a dimly-lit jazz bar. Characters love and long for each other, they express their feelings in furious bursts of passion, but that cloud of melancholy is never far away. Director Paweł Pawlikowski‘s masterwork functions both as an intimate character study and a sweeping epic of frustrated romance that spans several years and many countries. Unabashedly ambitious yet deeply personal, Cold War feels like the kind of raw, real, and ferociously intelligent drama they don’t make many of anymore.
The story begins in post-war Poland. It feels like the deepest, darkest shade of winter, as tiny flits of snow settle into the charred husks that were once houses and barns. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) tour the countryside, auditioning musicians for a state-sponsored ensemble. He meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), a fierce young woman with a bold voice and piercing eyes. Zula is on the run from her tumultuous past, and the choir makes for excellent place to hide in plain sight. Wiktor is ensorcelled by her mystery, while she is drawn to his quiet aura of strength and stability. They consummate their relationship with fire and fury, but their love is threatened by the repressive socio-political climate around them. Wiktor greatly desires an escape to the West, but will the impulsive Zula actually join his defection?
Cold War could’ve easily unfurled into a sprawling travelogue, but Pawlikowski is too smart to step into a Doctor Zhivago-style trap. Though the story takes us from Poland to Moscow to Berlin to Paris one the course of many years, the script packs in a ton of story into its breakneck pace. It’s normally a knock to say a movie feels longer than it is, but not here: Cold War clocks in under 90 minutes, but delivers 2-plus hours worth of story. To draw out or slow down this story would’ve greatly diluted its impact.
Genuine chemistry between actors is one of those strange, unknowable mysteries. It’s easy to spot, yet impossible to manufacture from nothing. The proof of this lies in how often A-list performers get teamed up and have none of it. Kot and Kulig have boiling, bubbling chemistry, so much that they render their scenes humid from tension. Both actors are absolutely phenomenal at conveying the fascination, exasperation, and unwavering love this couple has for each other.
Pawlikowski brilliantly complements this hot-cold romance with black-and-white cinematography that’s both striking and startling. The characters in Cold War move between the eerie shadows in alley ways and the soft, hazy glow of lounges and Parisian flats. This is a beautiful film to watch: The cinematography adds so much to the story, it’s practically a supporting character in of itself.
It comes as no surprise Pawlikowski based the stormy romance of Wiktor and Zula on his own parents. Indeed, Cold War depicts a time and place that seems inhospitable to free expression and true love. As an audience, we find it difficult to watch two people who are genuinely meant to be together get wrenched apart, by forces by and beyond their control. They ache for each other, and we ache for them. The sadness that hangs over Cold War is actually our own.
90 min. R.