Monday 27 August 2018

Cold War (Poland/France/UK 2018: Dir Pavel Pawlikowski)

At first glance the sheer sweep of Pavel Pawlikowski's latest film will perhaps come as a surprise to people used to his more contained dramas like Ida (2013) or My Summer of Love (2004). But despite its multi country setting, the stunning musical elements and the decade plus timespan, this is still essentially an intimate film about two people who can't live with or without each other.

Pawlikowski has dedicated the film to his parents, whose stormy but loving relationship inspired Cold War's principal characters, musician Wiktor and singer Zula, brilliantly played respectively by a taciturn Tomasz Kot and a willful but tragic Joanna Kulig.

When we first meet them the setting is 1949 Poland; Wiktor and his then partner Irena travel round the country 'field recording' folk singers in towns and villages, looking for the strongest artists who will be enrolled in a project to keep Poland's song traditions alive with a massive concert. Among the singers chosen is Zula, who comes complete with a fraught past (involving attacking - and possibly killing - her father in self defense after a rape attempt) and gritty determination; she cajoles a fellow singer to audition for Wiktor as a duet, firmly in the knowledge that hers will be the most noticeable voice.   

And it works - Zula is asked to sing something else, and chooses, not entirely artlessly, a song from a Russian movie - Wiktor is hooked. Zula and Wiktor's attraction is instant but whereas he seems blindly besotted she clearly has a calculated agenda to leave Poland by any means possible. This attraction - and Zula's betrayal of her new lover - leads to Wiktor also having to leave, eventually travelling to Paris where his musical talents are diluted, first as jazz pianist and then a film composer. Over the course of the film the pair, who unsatisfyingly partner with other people, meet, couple, fight and separate over the course of the next ten years, before finally and tragically reuniting in Poland.

In Cold War (a rather obvious play on words title here) there are two love affairs going on. Obviously one is between Zula and Wiktor, but the other is with Poland itself. It is a country torn between its traditions and uneasy seduction by Soviet rule. A moving scene illustrates this perfectly, where the folk orchestra and choir, persuaded to trade in their traditional songs for rousing pro Russian pieces, perform on stage, dwarfed by the unfurling of a huge flag of Stalin, hand cranked by a stage flunky. 

The pull of Poland is strong for Zula and particularly Wiktor, and both both the couple's lives unravel slowly after leaving their home land - it's difficult to know how much of this is down to their tempestuous relationship or the uprooting from everything they knew? Wiktor lives in Paris in a loveless relationship with a poetess, Juliette, both openly sharing their lives with others, their despair captured by small brushstrokes of dialogue (Juliette: "Have you been out whoring?" Wiktor: "No, I've been with the woman of my life."). Zula meanwhile is being slowly turned into a star, reluctantly moulded into something she is not - a sultry torch singer singing "stupid lyrics" penned by Juliette. When Zula and Wiktor make an album together, and after he presents the finished work to her, describing it as their "first child," she tosses it in a bin calling it "a bastard."

The word bittersweet is terribly overused but in the case of Cold War very fitting. Zula and Wiktor's relationship is passionate but fractured - more joy is seen in the set piece song and dance numbers than on either of their faces, but the whole film is brilliantly and almost magically brought to life through the lavish black and white photography of Lukasz Zal, using the academy ratio with stunning effect. While you're never quite sure how much you can warm to their relationship (at one point Zula sums it up by saying "I love him and that's that") there's no denying the final reel emotional pull, where the formerly exiled lovers are reunited in Poland, having paid the ultimate price for their togetherness.

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