Cannes Review: 'Cold War'
This year’s Cannes Film Festival is overwhelmed with period pieces and tragic love stories. It seems that the world is haunted by love lost. “Zimna Voyna,” or “Cold War,” a Polish drama that sparkles with the promise of a rising auteur that made his big break with 2013’s “Ida,” breaks out from the rest of the pack with the potential to outlive the initial excitement of festival lights and red carpets.
It’s mid-20th century communist Poland when our star-crossed lovers, composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, “Spoor”) and singer Zula (Joanna Kulig, “The Innocents”), meet at a performing arts academy, a new institution with a mission to spread Polish folk music and dance. Their love affair is instantaneous and passionate, ripe with the excitement of secrecy and forbidden romance. Like most memorable romances, their love seems destined, perhaps even fated. Wiktor, who is being investigated for his involvements during the war, flees Poland. Zula betrays him. What follows is an affair of heartbreaks and reunions captured in a breathtaking black-and-white feature.
Their love story unfolds throughout the 1950s as writer, director and cinematographer Pawel Pawlikoswki (“Ida”) elegantly strings together scenes of their meetings and departures. The script is selective with its dialogue, relying mostly on the delicate framing of its characters to reveal thought and emotion. The two leads are often framed in the lower third of the frame and look into the corners, seemingly trapped within a world, or an affair, from which they can’t escape. In moments when the couple is in true harmony, such as a long-awaited reunion in Paris, they embrace in center-frame and pull apart again only to occupy the screen without the comforting balance of symmetry yet again. Pawlikoswki is clearly a master of the camera, able to manipulate the apparatus to inflict discomfort and relief through the language of cinema rather than linguistics. He isn't afraid to linger on his actors, letting time act as a catalyst of a scene rather than traditional action. Through long, uninterrupted takes, Powlikoswki is able to convey longing and desire as the lovers, often silently, muster a beautiful desperation.
“I love him, and that’s that,” a drunken Zula tells herself through a lonely reflection in a bathroom mirror. But, it’s never that simple, especially for the strong-minded female protagonist that Kulig masterfully embodies. The film continues to ask whether love is enough, but the question is never truly answered. Or, if it is, Pawlikowski’s answer is wholly unsatisfying for an audience that falls for the two Polish artists. Zula and Wiktor’s love is simultaneously their lifeline and their destruction and leads them down a path of an ultimately unsatisfying ending that, frankly, comes underserved. Pawlikowski spins a story of star-crossed lovers that, before the very end, is nuanced in both its content and creation.
“Cold War,” the first Polish film to compete in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 37 years, is a triumph. The time-jumping sequences flow into each other with masterful ease as political tensions seismically clash with the affair. It’s a beautiful tragedy that, in the best way, will hurt again and again.