Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski | Written by Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, and Piotr Borkowski | 89 min
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida from 2013 was an Oscar winner and high water mark for the Polish filmmaker, whose 2004 same-sex romantic drama My Summer of Love launched Emily Blunt into the cinematic universe. Accordingly, my expectations for this film were outsized, and it did not disappoint. I saw this at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival last September, which usually delivers at least one picture likely to find a place on my end-of-year Top 10 list. This is it for 2019.
Cold War shouldn’t work as well as it does—it resists typical storytelling structure as it regularly jumps through time—but the film charms from the first few minutes set in the war-ravaged Polish countryside in 1949. A pianist and composer, Wiktor (Thomasz Kot) and his colleagues search for talent to press into service for the state, a folk dancing musical troupe to perform at official events. Amongst the applicants they find Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young woman with a strong voice and a troubled past—one of the film’s best lines comes when she explains how she discouraged her father’s sexual advances.
Wiktor and Zula are on fire from first sight, and Cold War is their love story as their passion runs roughshod through their lives, across borders, marital bonds, and even prison gates. Cold War would make a solid double-feature with last fall’s biopic Colette, starring Keira Knightly, with which it shares at least one Paris location and a distinct side-eye of Parisienne society attitudes, this despite the films taking place more than 50 years apart.
The tone here is much lighter than Ida—Cold War is actually a comedy, though it’s dry as a martini—even as it shares with the former film some thematic parallels. And, like Ida, Pawlikowski doesn’t put a foot wrong in his directorial choices. His leads are astonishing, with Kulig a Slavic amalgam of Christiane Kubrick circa Paths of Glory, Léa Seydoux, and Jennifer Lawrence, and Kot is so louche and good-looking it hurts to stare at him too long. The whole film is gorgeous to see in its monochromatic look, the framing, and lighting choices, while the music holds it all together, signposting the changes in Europe from post-war to jazz to rock and roll. An unalloyed triumph.
Cold War opens at the Cineplex Park Lane in Halifax on Friday, February 8.