You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Cold War”is a happy love story.
Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski puts you in an illustrious trance with such sensual storytelling, painting the world of discordant lovers Zula and Wiktar with such visual decadence that he makes us want to live in it. It harkens back to a traditional kind of black-tie moviegoing experience where the film is experienced through an air that is always a bit hazy. Jazz music plays in the lobby. A waiter asks if you’d like some champagne beforehand.
It’s a delicious story for our senses to absorb, the foreign-language “Cold War” is. Which is why it makes the contrast all the more haunting one we comprehend the narrative playing out in this magnificent and magnificently devastating opus.
It feels like fate has planned for “Cold War” to be received and observed in time much in the same way “Romeo and Juliet” has. In both works of art there’s a contrast toying with us, one in which infatuatedly dazzling aesthetics drape a narrative that we increasingly feel won’t play out as its style portends. And like “Romeo and Juliet,” it’s hard to think a 2019 audience won’t feel inclined, maybe even conditioned, to respond more strongly to what makes it an enviable tale, at least initially. But part of “Cold War’s” majesty is its teaching that, no matter how we dress up an ill-fated relationship, the cosmetics can’t ever disguise reality.
Wiktar finds and promptly falls for Zula in late-‘40s Poland as she’s auditioning for a place in the folk ensemble he works for as recruiter and coach. “She’s an original,” he says of her afterward. He’s smitten, and so are we.
What follows is a love story that unfolds in multiple countries and over nearly 20 years in the mid-20th century. Circumstances keep Zula and Wiktar from ever being together on an all-is-right-with-the-world basis, but that doesn’t stop them from tricking themselves into trying.
As Zula’s stardom grows, some cosmic force ensures they keep running into each other. No detail feels accidental, from music being absent unless present in the context of the story to the returning echoes of a song with ever-so-slight variations that become the core beat and progression of “Cold War”—positive and self-assured at first, then increasingly worn with its duties. A channel for elation becomes rueful obligation.
It almost always happens that Zula and Wiktar retunite by means of an artistic performance, like a bellweather for their romance being called upon by the kind of beauty we see in music and film that they want so badly to stamp as a trait of their relationship.
Meanwhile, each chapter of their relationship fades to black, like segments of a timeless novella mined from rose-tinted ore. Pawlikowski suits up “Cold War” in antediluvian sensibility while stripping it down to the absolute essentials, his priorities consisting of finding grace in the tender, hard-to-reach places other love stories burden the audience with reaching for themselves.
In one early scene, the pair – played by Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig, plucked from the golden age of cinema – are sitting outside on a grassy plain, warmed by a fire and staring at each other as if working out a compromise between them without words. It says more than some entire soliloquies ever could.
In a recent interview with The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey, Pawlikowski discussed how he feels “alienated” from the digital present; the sentiment shows in his art. “Cold War” is sexily and sleekly shot in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that accentuates some of the year’s finer shots, but this is a very haggard love story, one with furrowed brow and tear-streaked cheek.
The buzzing of possibility that comes with each of Zula and Wiktar’s encounters that this time maybe, just maybe, it will be for good gives way to an inebriation of reality. As they are helplessly drawn closer in the early, middle, late years of the ‘50s and into the decade beyond, increasingly caustic words are volleyed between them, as they often are among lovers, their romance never quite paralleling the sensory flair the film is adopting.
As the all-too-brief film breezes along, Pawlikowski increasingly portrays his lovers as something akin to literal artistic creations, ones that depreciate much slower than everything else around them. Other key characters show visible signs of aging through the years in this world, but the faces of Zula and Wiktar – ones that already feel chiseled from marble – don’t conform to their loss of innocence. Whereas time is a force to be reckoned with in other love stories – the high school sweethearts for which graduation is inevitable, the inevitability of death knocking on the door of an elder couple – it refuses to have such a role in “Cold War.” And it makes the ending all the more devastating.
It’s as if the Earth stopped moving for Zula and Wiktar from the moment they met; two souls seemingly separated from time—a motif the film itself plays along with. The moments they are alone make for some of the most meditative sequences in “Cold War,” scenes that are beset by comparative moments of sheer busy-ness—the impressively choreographed, loud, kinetic song-and-dance shows of the ensemble, in particular.
Those rural, increasingly nationalistic tunes make up only one dimension of “Cold War’s” multi-faceted soundtrack, one that matches the film’s visual deliciousness with tastes of jazz and flourishes of early rock-and-roll, serving not only as a marker for the passage of time but as a mechanism to show where Zula and Wiktar reside in their own headspaces. The arts they have become so accustomed to growing with help equate their relationship with their identities and, most importantly, how to reconcile that sense of place with their uncrackable longing for each other.
Similarly, it’s impossible to crack our gaze with “Cold War,” each mini-act transporting us further into a monochromatic jungle where desperate love is the only thing keeping our protagonists from becoming lost in it. It’s the kind of story that repeatedly finds triumph in giving the simple feeling of desire all-consuming power (can’t we relate?), the kind of story that subverts in form and function, the kind of story that births universal truth and knowing when we speak and read and write about “those kinds of stories.”
“Cold War” is that kind of love story, and a star-crossed instant classic.
“Cold War” is rated R for some sexual content, nudity and language
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza
Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski