Cold War: The Classic Taste of an Impossible Romance

Pawel Pawlikowski’s follow-up to his Academy Award winner Ida is a masterful, impossible love story, inspired by the relationship of the director’s own parents, which blends the tropes of film noir, romance and musical in an astonishingly well crafted work that leaves the genuine aftertaste of classic cinema. Cold War took Cannes by storm earning the Polish auteur the best director prize and, judging by the record numbers it has already earned in a series of preview screenings, is ready to become one of the year’s biggest arthouse successes.

The story begins in Russian occupied Poland during the late 40’s, when a team formed by a music producer, a teacher and an “apparatchik”, ensuring everything goes according to the party’s mandates, are travelling around the countryside in search of traditional singers and dancers. They have been hired to put together a state-sponsored showcase of their folk heritage, hoping to boost national pride with a tour around the countries behind the iron curtain. In the selection process -think of a sort of Pop Idol TV show translated to the most remote Polish rural areas- the producer Wiktor meets temperamental contestant Zula, whose talent and in your face personality stand out from the crowd. She would be selected as one of the show’s main performers. As preparations go on and the successful event begins its international tour, their romance springs.

The consequences of the paranoia-fuelled post WWII years, with the all-seeing eye of the Soviet state intervening in every aspect of personal life, is one of the main themes Cold War explores. In one of its most ironic scenes, when the show rehearsals are nearly finished and everything is in place, the party’s man forces its producers to modify some of the, certified authentic, folk songs’ lyrics to introduce a number praising the glory of Stalin. In this oppressive climate, the couple, already in the middle of their tempestuous romance, plans their defect to the West during the company’s gig in Berlin. But Zula’s mercurial personality comes in the way leaving Wiktor to escape on its own.

Here, the second act begins with a totally contrasting atmosphere. The austere folk representations and noir undertones of the first act give way to the glamorous world of Jazz Paris in the 50’s. Pawlikowski recreates with the same exquisite sense of framing the ambient of the smoky clubs and chic surroundings that boosted the city of light’s social life at the time. As Wiktor establishes himself a celebrated musician and soundtrack composer, Zula plots all sort of strategies, thanks to her show’s international success, in order to enable their occasional encounters, adding as many new obstacles for their relationship, including marriage, as chances to be together and keep their flame alive. Her plans give the film the pace and multiple locations of a popular artist’s world tour, somehow mirroring the one she is continuously embarked in.

Yet, despite their longing to be together, when circumstances finally allow Zula to go and live and Paris, her inability to adapt to the sophisticated cultural circles Wiktor moves in will separate them again. His plans to turn her into a jazz star backfire due to Zula’s feeling jealous of the poetess hired to adapt her songs to French language, Juliette (Grecó?) – in a cameo played by Jeanne Balibar, who, after her acclaimed rendition of other French songwriter, Barbará, seems to be actress to go for impersonations of Gallic pop legends. The action returns to Poland for an existential final act, closing a sort of circular structure in this tale of impossible romance overcoming political, personal and social obstacles until the couple embrace their fate.

There is much to praise in Pawlikowski’s fifth narrative feature. The striking cinematography of Lukasz Zal, who also worked in Ida, repeats Academy ratio and monochrome choices with remarkable results, although this time adds a much wider catalogue of options to successfully distinguish the film’s rich diversity of sets and sceneries, meticulously recreated in an elegantly sober manner.

The cast is uniformly superb, anchored by an explosive central performance by Joanna Kulig as the salt of the earth; intense singer who finds equal difficulty in living with or without her lover. Tomasz Kot as Wiktor carries the assured presence of stars from Hollywood’s golden era. Both are helped by notable supporting turns by Agata Kulesza, the unforgettable Aunt Wanda in Ida, and Boris Szyc as the “apparatchik,” as well as scene-stealing cameos from the already mentioned Jeanne Balibar and the French filmmaker’s Cédric Kahn, as the couple’s respective lovers during their Paris stay.

The eclecticism of its soundtrack also stands out, as it is often the element that first help us know where the action is taking place, from the mysterious eastern European choral folklore of the government-sponsored shows to the sultry vocal jazz of Zula’s attempt at a solo career in France; with winks to orchestral exotica and the arrival of rock and roll to the old continent, it forms an extraordinary mosaic of contrasting rhythms and genres that perfectly matches that of the film’s settings.

Cold War looks set to conquer international audiences in the same way its Academy award winner predecessor, Ida, did. In this cynical day and age, having the audacity to craft an old-fashioned romance, blending elements of several classic genres, is no small feat. Pawlikowski reveals his wide reaching cinephilia in a work that is likely to become one of the films 2018 will be remembered for. ★★★★★

Cold War is released in the UK on August the 31st.

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