As a pair of dispassionate musicologists and a government official conduct American Idol-style auditions among peasants in 1949 Poland, the vibrant and slightly devious young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) immediately captivates Wiktor (Thomasz Kot) with her ambition, beauty and boldness, and it takes just a single look across a crowded room for them to form a bond that will persist across decades, national borders and political movements. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is titled after a geopolitical conflict, but it’s not about the larger forces that dictate where and how Zula and Wiktor can be together; it’s about the toll those obstacles take on a romance that seems impossible from the moment it starts.
Over the course of nearly two decades, the two lovers break up and reunite multiple times, torn apart by distance both physical and emotional, never able to achieve the peaceful contentment of a mature, settled relationship. But it’s difficult to imagine either of these tempestuous artists ever settling down in any way, or ever feeling satisfied with their lives. As the movie skips ahead in time, it always finds both protagonists in new surroundings, new circumstances, nominally committed to new partners even as they remain eternally devoted to each other in the depths of their hearts.
The passion in the lead performances, especially from the mesmerizing Kulig, is astounding, and even when Zula and Wiktor are demonstrating exactly why their romance is doomed, they radiate sensuality and longing. They channel some of that emotion into their music, starting with the folk songs that Wiktor helps craft into nationalistic spectacles for the Communist government, and later as part of the hedonistic jazz scene in Paris.
It’s during a period in Paris when they come closest to carving out a normal life as a couple, even if Zula is technically married to someone else, for immigration purposes. A Polish folk song first heard in the opening scenes being sung by a young peasant girl gets reinterpreted and reinvented over the course of the movie, as a sort of avatar of the characters’ ever-changing relationship. As popular music changes and becomes looser and more uninhibited, so do the characters, for better and worse. A stunning scene of Zula dancing with wild abandon to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” conveys more about her volatile, brazen personality than any dialogue ever could.
As he did in 2013’s Oscar-winning Ida, Pawlikowski shoots Cold War in gorgeous black and white and in the constrained Academy ratio, and he and cinematographer Łukasz Żal turn nearly every frame into a work of art worthy of hanging in a gallery. The meticulous compositions never get in the way of the raw intensity of the characters, and Pawlikowski can express a sudden shift in their feelings for one another just in his blocking and camera placement. Whether they’re bitterly sniping at each other about past missteps, or lost in the throes of ecstasy, Pawlikowksi condenses the entire world into the connection between these two flawed, beautiful people.