A man and a woman in a turbulent relationship; she’s a star with powerhouse vocals, he’s the musician who discovers and magnifies her, cursing them both to a lifetime of crashing together and tearing apart. That’s right, ‘Cold War’ fits snugly on one side of some weirdly specific musical-romantic-drama-from-2018 coin, staring down ‘A Star Is Born’ with a steely glare. If heads is Gaga-infused blockbuster bombast, then tails is some brutally efficient Polish minimalism, as Pawel Pawlikowski returns after his Academy Award-winning ‘Ida’ from 2014 with a similarly styled and almost equally rapturous follow-up.
Again shooting in the Academy ratio, Pawlikowski once more boxes in a pair of lives left unmoored in Poland’s recent history. Replacing his previous film’s young novitiate and her fraught relationship with a female family member, each of whom are contending with their family’s tragic history, here he tells the tale of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a musical director, and Zula (Joanna Kulig), the young, ambitious chanteuse he discovers while building a new, traditional Polish folk super-group to rebuild a “music of the people”. And so sparks a sorrowful love story, spanning across more than a decade of passion and pain, heartbreaks and reunions, and traversing multiple European borders as these crazy kids try to work it out.
Though it may share stylistic points with the director’s previous effort and broad plot points with another of 2018’s awards contenders, this is a strikingly singular effort from a filmmaker who is fast becoming one of the most interesting international auteurs currently working. There’s a bleak carnality and smouldering romance dripping from every frame of this thing, even with formal and aesthetic choices that directly mirror those of his earlier, far more austere and cloistered (pun-intended) offering. It’s a testament to Pawlikowski’s clearly impressive ability mould the very film stock around his protagonists, crafting perfect evocations of the inner minds of the characters he focuses his gaze on.
In this, he is of course aided by such fantastic performers as Kot and Kulig, each lending emotional nuance amidst psychological impenetrability to figures that, in the hand of lesser actors, could have come across as cyphers or pawns in their director’s schematics. Instead, their charisma and chemistry burn off the screen, immediately selling every fiery development and ruthless twist in the lovers’ bumpy relationship. Kot’s Wiktor, handsome and reserved, with the pained, lovelorn stare of an Old Hollywood star, is the politically disillusioned and artistic-minded yin to the yang of Kulig’s Zula, a wary pragmatist with inarguable talent, fighting to get ahead and get out of a dead-end existence in the middle of nowhere.
This is a strikingly singular effort from a filmmaker who is fast becoming one of the most interesting international auteurs currently working.
She may admittedly have the showier role, but it is most definitely a star-making, film-defining performance from Joanna Kulig, and you’ll be hard-pressed not to fall in love with such a screen-blazing presence – it makes understanding Wiktor’s fascination particularly easy. Whether drunkenly dancing on a bar in Paris or coldly explaining her murder of her father, Kulig brings piercing insight to a ferociously independent spirit, somehow balancing a surfeit of emotions that are always bubbling up to the surface with a particular brand of enigmatic unknowability. It’s highwire work, delivered in such an off-handed manner and with such a perceptive ease as to clearly announce her as a fascinating talent to keep an eye on.
Yet it’s the film’s final frame that seems most beguiling, as Pawlikowski dedicates the film to his parents, whose names and turbulent love story formed the inspiration (if not the exact basis) of his film’s Wiktor and Zula. The director, who emigrated from Poland to England as a teenager and has only recently begun making films in his native tongue, here crafts a brisk, sumptuously confined love letter to his parents and their fraught relationship. Running at less than ninety minutes, he pares away all extraneous details, excising subplots or unnecessary detours, leaving a lean race through the years that highlights when they are together and making music above all else. In essence, they are two broken people, part of both a relationship and a country trying to rebuild and reconstitute an idea of itself, but always struggling with the trauma and onslaught of time.
And for one final comparison: nowhere else this year will you find such thoughtful, specific storytelling being told through song. The way these tunes are threaded and rearranged over the course of the film is masterful, and forms just as much of a bedrock in our understanding of the two leads’ relationship as the actors or cinematography. Take that, Bradley.