Pawel Pawlikowski has chosen to follow up on his much-admired 2013 effort Ida with another monochrome beauty in the form of the decade-straddling, doomed romance epic, Cold War.
First things first, the hands are held aloft in brazen acknowledgement that using a loaded adjective such as ‘epic’ conjures a certain stereotype. Let it be known that it is a monolingual false friend in this instance. After all, ‘epic’ normally invokes the presumption of a corpulent, bloated runtime keen on atmosphere and detail over any vague sense of propulsion. Throw the black and white colour presentation into the equation and the fear is that ‘undiscerning’ audiences may run at a rate of knots for the door. It would be churlish to do so. In terms of the weighty runtime, no, that is not the case here. This may sound innuendo-laden, but with a compact 88-minute duration, Cold War is taut, tight and slender in length.
Our guides are Wiktor and Zula. We commence in the 1950s with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot): a Polish composer in his mid-forties. He meets a young twenty-something Zula (Joanna Kulig) whilst teaching her to sing in his ensemble. The composer is a subversive sort. An apostate from the prevailing political tenor, he tours the land with his troupe singing communist songs to the common proletariat.
It turns out that Zula does not only cross the line from musical cohort to girlfriend, but she has been coerced to ‘rat’ on him by confessing all of her knowledge of Wiktor to the authorities. Upon candid divulgence of this, she swears blind that she will never say anything upon which harm can then be placed upon him. Realising that he cannot remain ensconced in his homeland, however, he leaves. What ensues are years of fleeting meetings, ifs, buts and maybes; not to mention bitter heartache, where the intensity of their emotions are heightened irrefutably by the circumstances of their milieu.
The title ‘Cold War’ is evocative of the attrition that marks this tragic love. These two lovers are locked in an irreconcilable, untenable reality: lives that cannot survive together, but neither can they blossom apart. Star-crossed, land-locked and dislodged; they entwine and separate over and over again. There are more geographical switches than a Bond film, and the passionate exchanges somehow manage to squeeze in shades of La La Land, the Before trilogy and Romeo & Juliet all within an hour and a half.
All in all, Cold War marks a further impressive chapter in the career of Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski. Here he has sculpted an impressive, beguiling and affecting work that is metered by old-school charm. He sure knows how to put these things together. A master builder at work. Watch him work.