Cold War (Zimna wojna) movie review: chilly romance

MaryAnn’s quick take: This lush throwback to European cinema of the 1950s and 60 looks gorgeous and sounds wonderful, but it never quite gels as the passionate romance it wants to be.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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Pawel Pawlikowski’s followup to his 2015 Oscar-winning Best Foreign Language Film Ida is another melancholy contemplation of life in Poland in the postwar period, this time through the narrow lens of a mismatched couple and their romantic ups and downs. Again shot by cinematographer Lukasz Zal in moody black-and-white, again utilizing the same old-fashioned square aspect ratio, Cold War is — like Ida — deliciously reminiscent of films of the period it’s set in; this is cinematic romance as lush throwback to classics of the 1950s and 60.

Alas that the romance never quite gels. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Woman in the Fifth) are named for director and cowriter (with Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski) Pawlikowski’s parents, and the film is dedicated to them. But this cannot be entirely a true story — the onscreen lovers don’t appear to have had a child together, for one big thing — so clearly some of this has been fictionalized. More of it needed to be. Cold War cannot decide whether Wiktor and Zula are so madly in love that they would take enormous risks and put themselves in considerable danger to be with each other, or not. Most egregiously, a decision by one of them at a pivotal point in the story is so baffling, so unsupported by what we’ve seen, that I simply could not buy anything that came after. If this were a completely true story, then, well, people do inexplicable things sometimes (but even “truth is stranger than fiction” doesn’t always cut it even in a “based on a true story” story). If this were, in fact, a 60-year-old film, this decision might be easier to overlook: contexts were different then, and presumptions an audience would bring in then are not the same ones we bring now. But in a new film made from modern perspectives, it feels either lazy or deliberately vague to some unconsidered purpose.

“Our relationship might not make a lot of sense, but at least we look great together, don’t we, darling?”
“Our relationship might not make a lot of sense, but at least we look great together, don’t we, darling?”

It’s also quite strange that while the actors are only five years apart in age, she comes across as very much younger than him, though with a naïveté that comes and goes depending on the needs of the plot. So I’m not sure whether or not there is meant to be a large age difference between them to account for the fact that Wiktor and Zula seem emotionally and psychologically at odds at times.

The romance, then, is not compelling enough to allow for the other intriguing aspects of the tale to take a backseat, which is, disappointingly, the case. The romance unfurls over a backdrop of music: they meet at a school that he has helped found, at which she is a student, for traditional Polish folk music and dancing, in 1949. (He plays the piano; she sings and dances.) Their relationship develops as the school mounts a troupe that gives glorious public performances, and as patriotism is forced to give way to propaganda: in the early 1950s they are required to perform songs praising Stalin alongside their “peasant music.” By the late 50s, they are reveling in decadent jazz in Paris, and in sexy French torch songs. But any notion in the film of exploring music as a metaphor for freedom, or the stifling of it for oppression, is unfocused, at best.

Cold War looks gorgeous and sounds wonderful. But as the passionate romance it wants to be, it left me feeling distinctly chilled.

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Fri, Sep 21, 2018 1:57am

wow it was a long time since I came across a crappy review like that. This person shouldn’t be allowed to write about films. Please go back to high school. Maybe you can join a film club there and learn something.

reply to 
Tue, Sep 25, 2018 8:21am

The Film Reviewer Licencing Board has taken note of your comments. Ungoodthink cannot be allowed.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to 
Sat, Sep 29, 2018 4:23pm

Awww, thanks for checking in! Why don’t you tell us what you thought was crappy about my review, what you thought was amazing about the film, and we can take it from there.

(I suspect you yourself may be still in high school. Are you?)

Sun, Oct 21, 2018 12:32pm

I saw this last night and was mightily impressed. But then I’m a music nut, and being a European may also have something to do with it. I disagree that “the romance unfurls over a backdrop of music”. Music occupies the foreground – it is a film about two musicians, after all – and is frequently used as a narrative tool, for instance when the Polish folksong about “dark eyes” is transformed in a fetching jazz ballad. The passing of time is artfully indicated by succeeding musical fashions, from ethnomusicology reminiscent of Alan Lomax, folk music put into the service of communist propaganda, a crappy ode to Stalin, cool fifties jazz (I don’t see what’s “decadent” about it, frankly), rock ’n’ roll (which unleashes Zula’s wild side when she’s depressed and drunk) to late fifties/early sixties corny exotica. It was painful to watch Wiktor and Zula being slowly mangled by Cold War politics. I agree their personalities were a little undercooked, in a very European arthouse sort of way, but I also believe not everything needs to be explained in a naturalistic fashion so I didn’t mind. (I haven’t seen the new “A Star is Born” yet, but I suspect this movie suits me better.)

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Jan_Willem
Tue, Oct 23, 2018 10:30am

I don’t need everything explained, either. And I don’t think there’s anything obtuse or inexplicable about what happens. But everything you describe about the music — which is accurate — isn’t *story.* It’s setting. I need more story and more engaging characters than this movie offers.

(I don’t see what’s “decadent” about it, frankly)

I don’t either. But people did!