It is rare for a film to be so unlike a blockbuster, yet undeniably overwhelm your senses as decidedly as Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest feature. Not only is the painstakingly-beautiful Cold War a visual feast, with each monochrome frame singing harmoniously along with protagonist Zula (Joanna Kulig), but its brilliant soundtrack vibrates every fibre of your being – from Bach to Bill Haley and Ella Fitzgerald, the music embodies the spirit and emotional rollercoaster of this epic narrative. This is bold, assured filmmaking confirming its excellence at every turn. No wonder Pawlikowski won the Best Director award at Cannes.
Spanning the decades in the aftermath of World War II, Cold War centres on the blazing romance between Polish folk singer Zula and musical director, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). Their mutually-assured, destructive attraction burns brightly in the new communist state; a sensual explosion behind-the-scenes of the traditional and vapid folk songs Zula performs every night across the Eastern Bloc. But as with the political Cold War, there’s no telling when the most heated of exchanges may suddenly fizzle out. When the couple are given the opportunity to escape to the West together, each opts for a different path; sending their lives in irreconcilable directions, and resigning their love to tragedy.
Framed in a restrictive Academy ratio, cinematographer Lukasż Zal’s sumptuous style captures the superficial, glamorous appeal of mid-century life on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Kulig, in particular, exudes a magnetic charm often thought to have perished with cinema’s classic stars, and her creative passion infects everyone in view. She instills Zula with an irrepressible personality that bursts through the photographic confines, spilling into the present and summoning us to this volatile moment. But the hardship of life in a Soviet satellite state, or an existence after defection, gradually comes to the fore. Here, the narrow frame has another, more ominous purpose: it is always there, lurking covertly just offscreen and regulating the audience’s and protagonists’ limited peripheral perspective. Even when Soviet agents enter the narrative, the oppressive frame hints at a more sinister and pervasive network beyond its horizon. In Cold War‘s decades-long, international span, there is always more offscreen than on.
Yet this is somehow one of the most compelling components of the film. Cold War never condescends to its audience, and for a film with such broad scope, it successfully and succinctly relays all of the story, emotion and complex characterisation required within the briefest of interactions. As a microcosm of the post-war years, we journey with the couple through their heartbreaking and turbulent relationship – with one another, and to their place in the world – and come to an ultimately inevitable and futile resolution. Yet, it is also profoundly humane and romantic. After such tumultuous events, there can be no other option. “Let’s go to the other side. The view is better from there.” Isn’t always?
Cold War is released in cinemas on 31st August