Well-crafted with dazzling black-and-white cinematography, and certainly a film to appreciate, but it is emotionally vacuous.
Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
2018 | Poland | Drama/Music/Romance | 89 mins | 1.37:1 | Polish & French
M18 (passed clean) for some sexual content, nudity and language
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc
Plot: In the 1950s, a music director falls in love with a singer and tries to persuade her to flee communist Poland for France.
Awards: Won Best Director (Cannes). Nom. for 3 Oscars – Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Cinematography
International Sales: Protagonist Films/MK2
Singapore Distributor: Anticipate Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse
(Reviewed at Singapore Film Society screening)
I am beginning to think that Pawel Pawlikowski is not the right filmmaker for me. As far as I tried, I couldn’t get into Ida (2013) enough to like it, however much I admired the film’s craft. Likewise, for his latest, Cold War, I get a sense of déjà vu and it feels discouraging. In this context, I’m not the best person to push for the film, but I will try to espouse its admirable qualities, even if I may hold strong reservations.
There is no question that Cold War is one of the most highly-acclaimed world cinema-type offerings of 2018, winning notable awards including Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival. It is even nominated for three Oscars, including Best Director and Best Cinematography, which is quite a rare feat for a foreign-language film. I would be surprised though if Cold War wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the expense of Roma (2018).
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is a music director who at the start of the film is on a field trip collecting working-class folk songs from within the rural areas of communist Poland. On a chance encounter, a lady auditioning for a part in a music-and-dance act begins to fuel Wiktor’s romantic desires. She’s Zula, played by Joanna Kulig in a charming, and at times, seductive performance.
“Are you interested in me, because I have a talent or in general?”
Pawlikowski manages to create some spark between them, particularly in sequences that showcase Wiktor conducting music to choreographed song-and-dance performances. Bound by a love for music and performance, and in a clear case of ‘opposites attract’ (Zula is temperamental whilst Wiktor is at best tolerant), they find themselves falling in love with each other’s qualities, yet are very well aware that the macro sociopolitical circumstances of their time could draw them apart.
This dialectical tension of intimacy versus separation is thematically sound, but it isn’t executed convincingly or with great, emotional depth. There is too much ‘fragmentation’ of their love affair through different snapshots in time (from the late 1940s to 1960s) as the film charts their journey in and out of communist Poland and a freer France.
Ask yourself this: if a film’s plotting spans nearly two chronological decades, but clocks in a runtime of only 90 minutes, is that not a telling sign? As a director of craft, technique and actors, Pawlikowski is outstanding. But as a storyteller, I am far less empathetic towards his penchant for narrative restraint and brevity.