Beautiful images of beautiful people can't breathe life into the visually stunning but emotionally empty Cold War
This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.
One of the great functions of cinema is its ability to act as an intimate collection of artifacts. Every shot of a film, and even every frame contained within, can act in the same way seeing a historical object or a painting can, evoking a profound emotional response within our souls that finds us longing for a time gone by. Even if that period was marked by tragedy or took place outside of the purview of our own lives, the beauty in the visuals of whatever object we’re observing binds us to its origins, engulfing us in the depths of their possibilities. Wondering about their meaning, journey, or how others might have felt the breadth of their emotional effect is an act we perform just as eagerly, maybe even more so, when it is in the context of watching a film. Cold War (Polish: Zimna wojna), Polish writer-director Paweł Pawlikowski’s (Ida) latest work, lives and dies by that idea, seeking to position every masterful frame as a relic of a pivotal, transitional time in world history where society’s rapidly changing ideals were felt emotionally just as deeply as they were culturally. The problem is the subjects in this collection of cinematic paintings feel distant and undefined, a tactic that may work for a still piece but feels like a miscalculation in a film.
Opening as if in the middle of a deeply sad American Idol episode, we meet musicians Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, Gods) and Irene (Agata Kulesza, Ida) as they travel the postwar Polish countryside searching for talented youths they will employ as part of Mazurek, a travelling variety show designed to celebrate Polish culture. At the subsequent auditions, Wiktor quickly grows attracted to Zula (Joanna Kulig, The Woman in the Fifth), a precocious singer desperate for any form of escape from her dark past. The two fall in love over the years preparing the show, only to be torn apart when Wiktor decides to defect from Poland amidst the country’s (and Mazurek’s) growing affection for Communism. Protective over her own success and survival, Zula leaves Wiktor to defect on his own, setting off a years-long saga which tracks their on and off romance.
Part of the mystique of the film lies in its structural identity, which positions the film as a breathless, often melancholy musical rather than the heady romantic drama its premise suggests. It uses music as motif, with the evolution of Zula’s music, particularly her signature song Two Hearts, mirroring the own transformation of these two star-crossed lovers. The song, a rural mountain folk tune that molds into a sultry jazz ballad, reflects the the pair’s relationship shifting from one of traditional, almost formal romance into a shaky but wildly intense passion for one another. The music signifying their evolution as characters comes to brilliant head in the film’s finest scene, where a drunk Zula spins and sways through a crowd dancing to Rock Around the Clock. In one fell swoop, her manic dancing, almost like a plea for help, captures all the coming spirit and desires for freedom that will define the coming 60s. Pawlikowski’s decision to frame the narrative threads as a consequence of the music, as if casting a spell over an era already lost in a trance under the shadows of the war and the Stalin regime.
It’s all given a dream-like quality by the fantastic camerawork of Pawilkowski and frequent collaborator and cinematographer Łukasz Żal, whose Academy Award-nominated work on Pawilkowski’s Ida is perhaps outdone here. Shot in stark black-and-white and constrained by the old 4:3 Academy aspect ratio, this is film given both grandeur and intimacy by its framing, presenting lush landscapes and earth-shattering close-ups in equal measure. Battered churches, bustling cities, and layered glances are all given the same respect and consideration, as if the camera is acknowledging the irrevocable bond between our souls and our environment. While Wiktor and Zula often feel detached from the world, the camera reminds us that it’s always eating away at them.
That reminder, however, brings us to the fatal flaw of Cold War, which is its emotional coldness. For all the raw emotion conjured in the audience by the superb cinematography, there’s little to be found in the actual relationship between Wiktor and Zula themselves. Kot and Kulig are both solid performers who do their best with the material, but the film’s misleadingly rapid-fire pacing and short run time does not do the development of their relationship any favors. Since their relationship is only told through increasingly short spurts, we never really understand the reason for their attraction, how it develops into the blind but unsure dedication that defines them, or why their inevitably tragic conclusion is even a conclusion at all. They go through the motions of the ebbs and flows of romance more like they’re rehearsing it than actually feeling anything. Maybe that’s the point, as Pawilkowski seems to be relying more heavily on the camera work to evoke feeling here, but in a narrative like this, especially a romance, that alone isn’t enough to make the film feel fully realized. It can be said that soulless love is love nonetheless, but the aching depths of the heart seemingly drawn upon by the film’s visual pastiche suggests we were owed something more in terms of narrative complexity.
Cold War is a testament to the power of the film camera as the tool of an artist, and that strength is both a blessing and curse for this ultimately disappointing film. It allows Pawilkowski to provide some of the most striking images yet seen on the silver screen this year, the sort that demand to be experienced in a theater in the same way a painting demands to be seen in a museum. But the deft visual hand overpowers the narrative one, leaving us with beautiful people in a beautiful world and almost nothing of real originality or substance for them to do. While such a coldness may be evocative of the era Pawilkowski is trying to understand, it does little to interrogate it in any way that will stay with you.