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.
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.