Synopsis: In the 1950s, a music director falls in love with a singer and tries to persuade her to flee communist Poland for France.
Stars: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Ferency, Borys Szyc
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: In 2015, director Pawel Pawlikowski made a giant splash with Ida, his gorgeous Oscar-winning work that tracked a novice nun making a road trip with her aunt to learn more about her past before taking her vows. It was stunning film, easily earning its place on the best-of year lists and further establishing Pawlikowski’s late-career resurgence in his Polish homeland. The story felt personal to the director and he’s gone even further with his latest work, Cold War, using the lives of his parents tumultuous relationship to serve as the basis for the story. Like Ida, critics that have embraced Pawlikowski’s sparse narrative and Lukasz Zal’s (Loving Vincent) stunning black and white cinematography have met Cold War with rapturous applause. Unlike that earlier work, however, Cold War lives up to its title in more ways than one; I found it almost impossible to find a way to connect with it on any level whatsoever. Though it boasts two lovely lead performances and is grand to look at, it’s not just cool to the touch…it’s frozen.
In post war Poland, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is part of a government gathered group assembling a folk ensemble to tour as a way to bring back authentic tradition to their ravagaed country. It’s at the auditions and rehearsals for this troupe that he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig) a headstrong woman with a questionable past that might not be the most talented but is certainly the most compelling performer. As the tour proceeds, the two find their attraction growing and when their repertoire changes to be more propaganda based they must decide if they will stick it out or attempt to run away to France.
At 89 minutes, Pawlikowski doesn’t leave much room for filler and even though the film takes several leaps ahead in time that can make your head spin it does have a decent forward momentum. I did find it a little challenging to track some of the secondary characters we were evidently supposed to keep tabs on because when long gone faces suddenly reappear after years you don’t get much chance to remember their names and how they fit into the story. You almost need a cheat sheet to stay with the comings and goings or the supporting cast, strong as they are.
The film benefits largely from Kulig’s strong-willed turn as a woman wanting a better life but feeling trapped by her past. You absolutely get the intended feeling she wants nothing more than to chuck it all and run away with Wiktor if there weren’t the secrets she harbors keeping her from being able to turn away from her present circumstances. Kot, too, places his role with a plaintive quietness that works well with Kulig’s more aggressive tendencies. When the two are together, sparks fly. When they are apart, things slow down.
Pawlikowski nabbed a Best Director nomination for his work here and that’s a bit of a head-scratcher in my book, especially considering someone like Bradley Cooper didn’t get on the list for A Star is Born. As the director and co-writer, Pawlikowski is mostly the one to blame for the film having some pacing and narrative problems that keep it almost entirely at arm’s length. Perhaps it was because I saw the film at home and didn’t get to experience it on a big screen to let Zal’s crisp Oscar-nominated camera-work invite me in…but Pawlikowski’s films are so quiet and personal that it feels like this was just a story that wasn’t suited for me.