Nearly five years ago, in these very pixels, I had this to say about Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida:
If I am hesitant to say Ida is a great movie, still interpret that as praise – greatness is hard to come by, and more often than not identifiable only after time has eroded the more plentiful but less durable artifacts of culture that clog our vision.
Ida went on to win America’s Most Patronizing Film Award, and now I’m here reviewing Pawlikowski’s follow-up, Cold War, which has already collected the best award a movie can win, and I’m overwhelmingly tempted to say about this film exactly what I said about Ida.
But with the benefit of even just those four-and-a-half years of hindsight, it’s clear that Ida really was great; I’ve found myself musing on it, returning to it, finding myself distracted, at the most unexpected of times, whereas I only remembered that, say, The Shape of Water existed because I needed an example to put into this sentence. Consider this a roundabout way of saying that Cold War is very good, even if you should only ask me if it’s great right around when I’m prevaricating on his next film and kvetching about some god-awful CGI-soaked prequel to The Dark Crystal or whatever.
Cold War is about Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), the musical director of a folk music-and-dance revival project in late ‘40s Poland. Zula (Joanna Kulig) is far and away their most talented discovery, and one who stirs Wiktor in other ways. Their troupe is a hit, and so is their love; it quickly becomes clear that neither can be contained by the borders of Poland, or even the Iron Curtain. What they discover about themselves, each other, the world, and their home once they have left and returned, however, is not nearly so simple a storybook tale.
It would be easy, too easy, to spend this entire review comparing Cold War to analogues, some superficial, some less so. Cold War is, like Roma, a black-and-white film examining a troubled society through the lens of the director’s family history. In its bedeviled romance between a female stage talent and the man who discovered her, it is weirdly parallel to A Star Is Born, one of the year’s strangest films. In its exploration of Poland at the height of the Cold War through a duo’s journey, it has echoes (albeit inverted echoes) of Pawlikowski’s own Ida.
Unlike Ida, though, Cold War is decidedly not even an echo of transcendental cinema. Instead, Pawlikowski’s film comes to life when he gleefully loots from the French New Wave, a style budding in Paris just as his characters were, and explores the tension between it and his measured, deceptively somnolent expression of life in Communist Poland. That tension, more than his characters’ words, or even their actions (at 88 minutes, the film is almost shockingly brief in today’s cinematic climate), defines the project at the heart of Cold War.
The film is, of course, beautiful; beautiful when it is still, exploring spaces, surfaces, and faces, especially the perfectly-cast Kot and Kulig. But it is even more beautiful when in motion, beautiful and thoughtful. I’m not just talking about the amazing long take that follows Zula onto the dance floor of a Parisian club to the tune of “Rock Around The Clock,” but the neatly parallel take just a bit later of Wiktor storming into a Parisian flat in vain search for her. Cold War is a film that lets its most cinematic elements take the lead in creating its experience, in its meaning. That, more than anything, is what lends the film for greatness, and a clinic on what film can and ought to be.