'Cold War' a sexy, doomed affair to remember in postwar Europe
At one point in the gorgeously fatalistic love story “Cold War,” pianist and composer Wiktor and vocalist Zula are alone in a 1957 Paris nightclub, dancing to the old Louis Jordan tune “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” That very question hangs over these two Polish exiles long after the music stops. Their ill-starred affair spans 15 years and several countries across postwar Europe, and “Cold War” is fueled by their connection as well as by all the missed connections snaking through their shared history.
The movie’s also fueled by the easy, charismatic chemistry of its stars: lanky Tomasz Kot (who is 6’ 6” and smiles like the Cheshire cat) and especially Joanna Kulig, photographed here like a smoky amalgam of Old Hollywood icons of glamour. Kulig comes with everything the role of this sullen, reckless siren demands, and then some.
The writer-director is Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski, born in Warsaw under Communist rule. His parents (named, not incidentally, Wiktor and Zula) careened in and out of each other’s lives for decades, while their budding artist son was raised in London and elsewhere.
His early films, including “My Summer of Love” with Emily Blunt, were made in England and France. In a recent interview, Pawlikowski said he wanted “Cold War” to depict a “beautiful disaster,” in honor of his parents’ own on-again, off-again story.
The result is a worthy follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Ida” (2013), which handed a big North American distribution success to Chicago’s Music Box Films. “Ida” took the director back to his native Poland for a spare, lean black-and-white evocation (photographed in the so-called “Academy” ratio, creating a nearly square image) of his homeland’s recent past. The look, brevity and shrewdly ironic detachment of “Cold War” hews closely to that of “Ida.” It runs a mere 77 minutes, excluding the opening and closing credits. It’s as verbally spare as it is visually spellbinding.
In 1949 rural Poland, a musicology project is underway. Wiktor and his colleague and lover (Agata Kulesza, marvelous in too-few scenes) bounce along in a truck with their sound equipment and their officious, party-line fellow worker (Borys Szyc). They’re auditioning the locals and gathering folk songs and peasant dances in one remote village after another. The end result: a touring concert presentation of music “born in the fields,” as Szyc says, “the music of your grandparents and their grandparents.”
Wiktor hears, and sees, something in a particular young woman. Zula, he learns, can sing. She comes with baggage, and a rap sheet, acquired when she attempted to murder her sexually predatory father. Zula sees the tour as a way out, even if she doesn’t know where “out” will take her. The affair with Wiktor begins not long after a private tutoring session, during which she asks: “Are you interested in me because of my talent? Or just in general?”
From there “Cold War” jumps to 1951 Warsaw, where the tour begins, and where Wiktor and company learn that the song-and-dance extravaganza is about to become heavily politicized. (The jump-cut to a Stalin poster unfurled, in alarming close-up, is typical of Pawlikowski’s efficient storytelling.) Wiktor and Zula continue their affair, though Zula seems perpetually on edge. The men in her life see her as a useful tool of sexuality. Wiktor, meanwhile, is planning a defection to the West. Come with me, he says. We’ll go to Paris. But if that happens, Zula wonders, “Who will I be?”
It’s the eternal lament of the exile in flux. Punctuated by brief blackouts, “Cold War” follows these two to Yugoslavia, to France and back to Poland. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s lighting is extraordinary, creating black-and-white snapshots of a vanished time with the same panache Alfonso Cuaron brings to his Mexico City reverie, “Roma.”
A lot happens in “Cold War.” Some of it’s cleverly dramatized; a lot of it happens in the margins, or offscreen. Compositionally, the director draws from all sort of Czech, Slovak and Polish New Wave inspirations, from “The Sun in a Net” to “Knife in the Water.” Pawlikowski imagines Zula as a mysterious, even unknowable figure, full of danger, secrets and riddles. Is she a symbol of her devastated country? A ticking time bomb? I happily saw “Cold War” twice, but both times I wondered what sort of relationship we might have with Zula and Wiktor in a longer, messier, more unruly version of the same story.
But that’s a testament to the quality of the acting. Kot’s diffidence can give way to violence, or tenderness; Kulig’s treacherous mood swings are distress signals from the heart, and often riveting. The exiles belong together and yet they’re impossible together. “Cold War” believes in their beautiful disaster of a love story to the end.
Starring: Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig, Agata Kulesza, Borys Szyc
Rating: R for some sexual content, nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Theaters: AFS Cinema, Alamo South, Arbor