Produced by Tanya Seghatchian,
Written by Paweł Pawlikowski,
Directed by Paweł Pawlikowski
Starring Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot,
Agata Kulesza, Borys Szyc
Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2015 and it seems likely that his new film, Cold War, might win him a second Oscar. (It’s Poland’s official entry for the 91st Oscars.)
The black-and-white cinematography is sumptuous, as is the remarkable recreation of ’50s and ’60s era Europe – particularly the contrast between Communist Poland and free, decadent Paris — but the love story at its heart might leave viewers cold.
The tale of two star-crossed lovers unfolds across Europe during the Cold War, but its brief 85-minute time leaves little time for character development. And the movie fails to convinces us of their epic love, which drives them both to make some rash decisions with serious consequences.
Loosely based on Pawlikowski’s own parents, the film follows musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), who, with his partner, is searching for singing talent for a show celebrating Polish music. He discovers young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), in whom he takes an immediate interest, undeterred by the fact she is on probation for stabbing her father (who “mistook her for his wife”).
The two begin an affair, despite the difference in their ages. Kot is 41 and Kulig is 36, but the film does such a good job of convincing us that Zula is in her late teens or early 20s that the relationship feels lopsided from the beginning. When the two end up in Paris, she’s no longer the fresh-scrubbed, ponytailed girl, but a glamorous nightclub singer and the two finally seem to be on the same footing.
But by the film’s end, Wiktor hair’s is gray and thinning, while Zula looks as young as she did when she first auditioned for him. That discrepancy can’t help but rob the final scene of some of its impact.
The episodes of their lives play out in scattered scenes, then the story jumps by years and miles to find them somewhere completely different. Zula mentions a husband we never meet: that entire part of her life isn’t considered important.
The most frustrating part, however, is that we never understand Zula’s choices. She remains an enigmatic, mercurial cipher. The film aspires to be a sweeping romance like Doctor Zhivago, but Zula seems modeled on such unpredictable characters as Jean Seberg in Breathless and Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim. Kulig does what she can with the role, but there’s not enough depth in the script for her to play.
Ultimately, the film seems to come down to Wiktor’s obsession with a woman who’s completely wrong for him in every way. It’s hard to understand why he pursues her even at great peril to his freedom and livelihood. As for what she seems in him? That’s not clear either.
I wish this were the film it thinks it is, about lovers whose lives are wrecked by the time they live in. But it remains a mere sketch of a film, for me. Without a deeper understanding of the characters and their connection, I remained unconvinced of the great love that drives them.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5