At the start of Pawel Pawlikowskis Cold War, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a Polish composer, is traveling the countryside—recording the folk music of farmers and villagers, songs valuable for being born of a specific people and place. This is music hes going to adapt for a folk-music ensemble called Mazurek that he, a colleague, and a government emissary will found in the Polish countryside. Its music the political forces that be will want to wield in favor of their own patrimonial, socialist-realist needs—music sung on behalf of the Polish Peoples Republic, a force Wiktor opposes.
But its also the music that will bring Wiktor the great love of his life. Zula (Joanna Kulig), a charismatic, untrained talent, will audition for Mazurek. Wiktor will push to accept her into the group—and, in time, they will fall for one another. Politics and their own ideals will push them apart—it isnt long before Zula is asked to inform on Wiktor—just as a fiercely as it pushes them back together. That title, Cold War, is blatant, but apt: this is not a film about a passionate love affair, so much as it is a film about two people constantly on the verge of one.
Funny: it feels strange to lay it all out on the page just so. Truthfully, Cold War is a film that, at times, barely seems to be happening, even as you watch it. From the broader political turmoil of its setting to the time these lovers steal away to be with each other, everything feels delicate and contingent, like its one hiccup away from collapsing in on itself. The slick, slight 88-minute film leaps forward through time, cutting out much of what happens to Zula and Wiktor when theyre apart, propelling itself forward by way of the political conflicts that push these lovers together and pull them asunder. They lead other lives and meet other people, but most of that material is beyond the scope of the film.
This is very much intentional. Pawlikowski, who has said that Cold War is inspired by his own parents real-life Cold War romance, has learned how to turn his penchant for highly manicured, tight narratives into an outright style. Hes sculpted an eerie, fleeting romance out of the lush, grand outlines of the kinds of romances his target audience has no doubt seen before. This movie seemingly has little in common with, say, Casablanca, but stories of love and sacrifice in times of international conflict, filmed in gorgeous locations with starkly coordinated lighting (the film was shot in an at times shockingly beautiful black and white) that amplifies that incontestable beauty of the films stars, have a way of feeling familiar.
Which serves to Cold Wars benefit: because youve already got an instinct for this sort of story, Pawlikowski has narrowed his focus to the moments that matter. Hes taken care to craft a film that ultimately seems to play out in only a handful of scenes scattered to and fro across Europe over more than a decade, and the variations—in where his lovers are in their careers, or whats happening politically around them—are what tell you how much time has elapsed. Yet even the scenes that run spaciously long feel whittled down to their essentials; even as its images are ostentatiously beautiful and poised, the film comes off as airtight and unadorned.
The best thing you can say for this approach is that it makes you feel, alongside Zula and Wiktor, like everything is happening on borrowed time and, thus, it feels like its slipping by quickly enough to make the panicked longing on-screen feel reasonable. You get caught up in the whirlwind of the romance; their myopia becomes yours.
Like Pawlikowskis last film, the Oscar-winning Ida, Cold War's images have been reined in by the boxy, old-school Academy aspect ratio, with big margins on either side of the screen that recall an era before movies went widescreen. In one sense, this lends the proceedings a sense of artifice, even artsiness. But, of course, Pawlikowski is too smart to do the bare minimum. The sense of enclosure, of these two lovers pushed into discomfiting, dangerous proximity when we see them together, is immediately striking.
But so is the sense that the director has squeezed all the gritty, more specific sense of conflict out of his movie. You watch it knowing that its narrow focus is deliberate; you lavish the aesthetic freedom of some scenes, such as one of Zula letting go of herself at a party and dancing with a sense of sexual vengeance on a bar. You lap up the images of these beautiful actors, whose textures and feelings are enhanced by the films overall beauty.
And then you wonder if there isnt something missing. Pawlikowski has ideas—about art, authenticity, politics, love—but he also seems hell-bent on making films that suggest them, rather that exploring them. Its not a wrong choice, but his films barely linger once theyre gone. In the end, his films are good enough to convince you that their lapses are actually merits, because they seem so intentional—but even knowing this much wont stop you from wishing there were more.
More Great Stories from Vanity Fair
– Is this the end of peak TV?
— R.B.G.: What On the Basis of Sex gets wrong
— Why The Mule feels like Clint Eastwoods magnum opus
Looking for more? Sign up for our daily Hollywood newsletter and never miss a story.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.PreviousNext