How do forces attract and bindingly pull two entities into the same orbit, sweeping them away into an uncontrollable whirlwind of emotion? This is the constant query that is at the core of Cold War, the latest shrewdly crafted feature of widely acclaimed director of Ida, Pawel Pawlikowski. While Ida concentrates on an inner journey, Cold War addresses an impassioned romance à la Casablanca, set over a number of years.
Visually stunning, Cold War is a treat for the senses. The Academy ratio gives an intimate overview, albeit oppressive at times. The film is also striking by the purity of its whites and the contrast of its blacks. This binary palette is part of the story, drawing into focus the divide keeping the main characters apart, in a postwar society which could barely see life in anything other than muddled grey.
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) tours the icy countryside of Poland to record folk songs he wishes to redefine and popularise on a wider scale. He is a musicologist with the ambition to give back grandeur and glory to the dormant arts. In the process of recruiting a troupe of rural artists, he bumps into the bold and hypnotising Zula (Joanna Kulig). Zula, accused of murdering her own father, then appears to be a dangerous yet alluring figure, and Wiktor is instantly smitten.
Thanks to a transcendent Joanna Kulig, Zula has a captivating aura, beguiling not only Wiktor but the audience too. Her face is surrounded by waves of blonde hair with a luminosity that leaps off the screen. In her, Wiktor sees a muse to his music. One of the most exquisite sequences finds Zula spontaneously jumping fully clothed into a watercourse. The camera chases her silhouette as she is slowly carried away by the current, peacefully humming a love song. Here, imagination distorts reality as Zula’s mystical energy is revealed. She becomes a mythological creature, a water nymph.
Cold War’s drama takes off with an escape plan: go further East beyond the Iron Curtain, far from Stalinist propaganda, in the hope of more auspicious places for love to blossom. Wiktor waits for her, but Zula never shows up at the rendezvous point.
From that point on, the storyline unfolds in a very theatrical way as Cold War plays out in several acts in a growing crescendo. We board Pawlikowski’s high speed time machine – the film runs for a short 84 minutes – quickly hopping from one year to another, with the star-crossed lovers meeting then separating in a doomed never-ending circle. In lieu of transition, a black screen allows us to sink deeper into Wiktor and Zula’s tragedy. These brief seconds of darkness enveloped in silence, might just be a metaphor to give the impression of a gigantic black hole devouring them both when apart. As if only being together could illuminate their melancholy existence.
Yet, the realisation that the freedom of heart so passionately sought outside the borders of Poland is only an illusion and a trick of the mind, hits them hard. And if Cold War feels chilly from time to time, it is because of the rawness of emotion characterised by the frugal dialogue and instinctive reactions of the lovers. The freezing air comes from a rapid pacing that keeps underlining how, even if they are both so intensely drawn to one another, they also repel each other like magnets. But that’s why this relationship feels real and honest. Wiktor and Zula are so much alike, so full of life, that their inward polarity, unfortunately helped by the political climate, keeps pulling them away. And still, they resist in the name of love.
Wiktor’s life revolves around the music, which is undoubtedly his second love. What stands out is the way it plays a key element to the plot. The traditional songs are compelling and make of Cold War a poignant musical full of spaces that can be easily filled by heady melodies. One particular and haunting song keeps coming back throughout the film, linking Wiktor and Zula together from the very start, putting into music the authenticity of their love. From country to country, from Jazz to Rock’N’Roll, we sail on Europe’s troubled waters, with the vibrant music always representing a decisive and moving driving force. With great delicacy, Cold War strives to gather on the same sheet music a series of framed moments in time to illustrate a love transfixed in ice – the mutual gravitational forces of two unceasingly intertwining yet struggling hearts.
By Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.