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NYFF Review: ‘Cold War’ is an evocative but cliched melodrama

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer


Poland has already decided that Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film Cold War will be its entry into the Oscar race this year. There’s no doubt that Cold War has plenty going for it—it’s a beautifully photographed drama, playing with the meaning of language and national identity over the course of a stark but sumptuous narrative of lost love and displacement in behind and in front of the Iron Curtain. But Cold War does not always work, its narrative slipping into clichés that it otherwise so strenuously avoids.

Cold War is a moderately episodic narrative centered around the relationship between composer and pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and a young singer Zula (Joanna Kulig). The pair meet when Zula auditions for a place in a musical troupe run by Wiktor and Irena (Agata Kulesza), who have travelled around Poland collecting peasant songs and dances and now propose to turn them into a cohesive performance of “the people’s” music. As the years pass, Zula becomes a breakout star and falls in love with Wiktor at the same time. The pair navigate the course of their relationship over many years, crossing Europe and the Soviet Union as they attempt to find their way back to each other.

Visually, Cold War is about as varied as you can get. The development of the relationship entails shifts in location, time period, and imagery – from the Polish countryside to Warsaw, Berlin, Paris, and back again. As the action shifts between the relative barrenness of the Polish winter landscape to the elegant environs of Paris, all etched out in a gorgeous black and white that makes the most of the greyscale palette. The change of time period is spelled out explicitly – via titles – and implicitly, via the changes in fashion and in shifts in location. The characters are more at home in the starkness of Poland, where the camera plays among the ruins of buildings, rooms with cracked and peeling paint, and Soviet-imposed buildings, than in the romance of Paris, which appears almost like a picture postcard, pretty but without depth. It is the contrast of home, imperfect as it is, and exile, be it never so beautiful.

The camera’s treatment of the setting expands to the characters. Sudden gaps in years mean that the characters change suddenly – most surprising is Zula, who goes from a very young, fresh-faced woman to one whose life is written across her face. Wiktor changes far less, despite probably suffering more visibly in their separation and his movement across locations. The contrast of the aging of the woman while the man remains the same comes off as a depiction of the relative toll the years take on Zula and the suffering that she undergoes out of frame.

Cold War is a male-centric narrative, focusing more on Wiktor across the ages than it does on the woman he loves. When he goes from Berlin to Paris, it is his story that the film follows, and his suffering, from betrayal and from separation, that supplies the narrative thrust. As a result, Zula is more difficult to pin down, both in character and in motivation. She has a somewhat murky past—Irena claims that she’s on probation for killing her father, and she later explains that he “mistook me for my mother, so I explained the difference with a knife.” Wiktor finds her attractive from the outset, and the film never explores the uncomfortable optics of an older teacher falling for a young pupil, nor does it hint with any great clarity at Zula’s psychological or sexual development. The brief mention of assault is more of a joke than anything else, a hint of her underlying strength. But, he is far more defined by her than she is by him. Losing her sets Wiktor adrift, and meeting her again brings him back to life. His entire raison d’etre is to be reunited with her, whatever the cost.

Zula’s apparent inscrutability is emphasized by her comparative lack of screen-time and sparse exposition. The film never explores what happens to her in between the moments she re-enters Wiktor’s life, though she cycles through at least two marriages, and motherhood, before the film ends. Theirs is meant to be a love story spanning multiple separations, other relationships, and near betrayals, yet the focus on Wiktor makes Zula into more of a symbol than a person. Their love scenes are cold and passionless—Zula looks positively bored most of the time—and her character becomes a vessel into which Wiktor pours his longing for Poland, his love of country, and his inability to return to it or unite with it. It’s nothing new to have a woman stand in for a nation—Godard did it with Bardot in Contempt, after all—but it has become cliché. Zula’s sacrifices are given short shrift in favor of Wiktor’s impassioned longing for Poland, the woman’s suffering for the man an afterthought in the man’s own suffering for his lost home.

Where Cold War does succeed is in the multiplicity of language and meaning, particularly reflected in the song “Hearts.” The song is introduced early on when Zula and a fellow student perform it in an audition. “It would be better with two voices,” Zula says, They claim that the song is actually from a Russian musical, but it becomes emblematic of Poland in performance. It’s then (loosely) translated into French when Zula cuts a record in Paris, and there’s a suggestion that it will be re-translated again, back into Polish. The song, performed over and over across different languages and with different meanings, stands in for the mutability of identity, the overlapping voices and languages transforming in meaning as the film goes on, refracting multiple times until the song, like the characters, is both different, and remains the same.

Cold War is an imperfect work, evoking a sublime beauty despite its clichés, and cliched despite its sublime beauty. The story is loosely based on the Pawlikowski’s parents, adding a touch of verisimilitude, but that does not make for a compelling film. It’s far from bad, but it could have been so much more.

Rating: 2.5 Stars out of 5

Author: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

Lauren is a film critic, writer, editor, and angry feminist, with a Masters in Film Studies from NYU and a PhD in making men mad on Twitter.

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