Written and directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot
Running time 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA rating R because sexy times and sad times
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
Ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have? Maybe the timing was way off, or they treated you like utter shit, or there was something between the two of you that was equal parts really fucking amazing and really fucking bad? I’ve had the first for real, and the second mixed with the third at the same time. Bottom line: it’s excruciatingly blissful torture. There’s something about this kind of heartbreak that speaks my language - I love the cloying, benign, syrupy aftertaste of a happy ending just as much as the next person, but the bitter pain of a searing bad love is a pleasing elixr to me, like the sweet burning of straight whisky seeping down deep into my belly. Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War, a desolate tale of love lost and found, multiple times, across borders and time in Cold War era Europe, is such a tale. Fair warning: after watching at the Philadelphia Film Festival this year I sat in the theater shell-shocked, because right away I knew in my bones that it had become my favorite movie of all-time. If you’re looking for a “real” review, it’s in your best interest to move along quite quickly to wherever it is you go for authentic film criticism, cause this sure as heck ain’t gonna be it.
There’s something clearly between our couple from the very moment they meet in post-WWII Poland - Wiktor, a serious composer, is leading a cultural project to preserve and promote their country’s folk music and dance, as a way to inspire hope and cultural pride during bleak times. He and his professional partner Irena traverse the countryside, rounding up musicians and would-be performers, raw talent to represent an entire broken nation, ensconcing them in an abandoned mansion for a The Voice or American Idol-style audition period. Zula (pretty much the perfect name for this character, and the most amazing name ever) is one of these hopefuls, though her fellow “competitors” quickly out her - she’s neither country bumpkin nor musician. But as Wiktor quickly realizes - she has that It Quality that’s hard to tear your eyes from, and it’s only a matter of time before she’s starring in the troupe’s numerous touring productions. Oh, also? Zula got herself a past. And so, the two hot people get together quickly and passionately, as two hot people are wont to do, and then we’re along for the ride of watching these two hover and halt and grasp and shove - from Poland, to East Berlin, to Split in the former Yugoslavia, to Paris, and back to Poland again. They both pick up other lovers and spouses along the way - as one reviewer wrote, becoming each other’s “eternal side pieces” - but their hearts never falter. Isn’t it romantic? To which I say, Hell Yes! There’s something so beautiful about two people choosing each other, over and over again, when the circumstances of their backgrounds and the time they live in keep them apart so often.
The love story between Wiktor and Zula is loosely based on the story of Pawlikowski’s parents, and the film is dedicated to them via title card at the film’s stirring close. The director has this way of creating time capsules in reverse with film - his 2013 Oscar-winning Ida, set in 1960’s Poland, is just as much a mood piece as his latest, capturing an era and a “look” with stunning accuracy. I saw Cold War with my friend Sara, and we gushed about how it didn’t feel like a period piece at all - it felt like it was actually made during the 1950’s. The attention to detail, the French New Wave references, the costuming, the stunning black and white shot in 4:3 aspect ratio - Jesus, Pawel, you’re killing me softly with all this beauty! Speaking of beauty, our main leads, Tomasz Kot as Wiktor and Joanna Kulig as Zula are, you know, gorgeous, as most actors are. But they don’t necessarily look like the actors of today. And yes, a lot of that can be attributed to their period wardrobe in the film and how the director plunks them in very period-specific moments. I hate to talk about their physical appearance because it’s degrading to the two of them - they’re equally quite talented actors - but it’s also not really necessary for me to comment on their looks. But they are so pretttyyyyyyyy. I’ve seen Kulig in one other film - Pawlikowski’s melancholy 2011 French mystery The Woman in the Fifth - and all I really remember about it is Ethan Hawke looking really dope in a Parisian-lite kind of way as a man who may or may not be making out with a ghost lady played by Kristin Scott-Thomas. (I haven’t watched this movie in a long time, so I could have the plot wrong?). Kulig is an actress who appears to have a real “fire in her belly” as Oren Trask says to Tess McGill in Working Girl, and her ferocious performance in Cold War is something that should be hailed and, as this girl is gonna do, treasure for the rest of her lil’ old life.
The stark ending of the film had some of the audience belly-aching and gasping because - how dare a love story end in such a manner! I won’t give too much away, but let’s just say things do not end well for Wiktor and Zula - so if you want a Hallmark movie-style aw shucks they gettin married ending, then…go watch a Hallmark movie. Some reviewers have lamented the bummer times that round out the last moments of the film, but for me? It’s the most beautiful way to usher our lovers off into the void of film afterlife. The conclusion of Cold War left me anything but cold - I found it to be the sweetest, most romantic ending to a love story ever. Yes, better than when Darcy sashays towards his woman at the end of 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. More satisfyingly lovely than when Keith realizes he’s been in love with Watts the whole time in the last seconds of Some Kind of Wonderful. Maybe it’s because I’m half Polish…there’s something about a nice, brisk suffering that doesn’t faze me, doesn’t make me feel necessarily sad. There’s a comfort in this kind of pain, just like the first few stabs of a wrenching heartbreak.