I was looking for an antidote. With Valentine’s Day a week out, I tried not to get my hopes up. But I was searching for a romance film that tasted better: not the syrupy spoonful of infeasibility, not the stale sensation of overused formula, not the acrid aftertaste of leftover chauvinism. I’ve only collected a few over the years — “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Blue Valentine” and “Up” come to mind. (Fatalistic? I call them frank. But I digress.)
When I encountered Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” my hopes got away from me. Pawlikowski’s 2015 film “Ida” was an antidote of another nature that I desperately needed at the end of my first year of college. It came at a time when I felt ashamed of the Catholic Church to the point where I was on the verge of leaving but hesitated, fearful of what would be left of me if I abdicated that part of my identity. “Ida” soothed me, told me I could live with opposing forces and curate takeaways from both the secular and religious influences in my life. If anyone was going to convince me with a romance, it would be the man who convinced me of that.
Sadly, though, the romance in “Cold War” leaves much to be desired. The movie places it in mid-twentieth century Poland and France, between an aspiring singer Zula (Johanna Kulig, “The Innocents”) and music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, “Gods”). In strictly practical terms, they probably shouldn’t be together, and, by the end of the film, they definitely shouldn’t. That leaves an hour and a half to … what? Bide our time? What happens in the prodigal journey from point A back to point A? A host of heteronormative romance tropes, that’s what happens. Let’s identify some.
Exhibit A: Propelling the romance through the male gaze
The first time Zula auditions in front of Wiktor, his love-struck look slices through the otherwise ordinary atmosphere of the scene, wonderfully capturing the disarming effect some people have on us. This gaze cannot become a crutch. It’s only charming a few times. It cannot support the weight of a budding romance, or justify a sharp cut into a sex-scene, or make us believe Wiktor loves Zula.
I inadvertently put a friend through this film, hoping it would convince him to see “Ida” (actually, it just became more difficult to convince him to watch a dark movie about a nun — thank you, “Cold War”). He compared one of the most egregious instances of this gaze (across a crowded room — I’m not kidding) to a Dos Equis commercial and called Wiktor “the most interesting man in Poland.” There is no better way to convey this unconvincing, contrived device.
Exhibit B: The aggressive kiss
Once Zula and Wiktor are an item, they spend much less of their time staring at each other and much more of it making out. Neither tactic should be used as a wholesale substitute for character development or dialogue. Yet both tactics are used as such.
Exhibit C: High-Impact Screenwriting/Low-Impact Reception
In other words, schmaltz. Lines alluding to staggering love (“she is the woman of my life”) without substance to prop up these words. They fall flat.
Exhibit D: Wait, so what happened to her husband?
Otherwise known as the romance writers’ selective amnesia, the main symptom of which includes giving the lover-protagonists an interloping lover or spouse to mention to one another in passing. Causes vary; in “Cold War,” they range from the need to justify a character’s ability to leave communist Poland for France to the more common desire to provoke envy. No matter the cause, the loss of the romance writer’s integrity is the universal result. I lost track of the non-character casualties of this endemic in “Cold War.”
Exhibit E: He slaps her, and I guess we’re supposed to chalk it up to the historical period
I don’t want to brush over violence against women. I don’t want the setting to silently justify it. It was never justified.
The list of other tropes that sap the emotional impact of this film go on, but I want to talk about one of the few scenes in “Cold War” that made me feel something. Zula and Wiktor venture to a club. “Rock Around the Clock” comes on and a drunk Zula dances her heart out, from partner to partner, even mounting a countertop (while Wiktor fixes her with a very different gaze, tinged with disgust). You’re probably supposed to feel apprehensive about the increasing turbulence of their romance. I was smiling, tapping my foot. The only feeling I got from watching this movie was accidental.
What I’m asking for, this Valentine’s Day, is that we close these exhibits. Until then, I hope you’re lucky, unlike me, and that you find one of those rare romance films that does.