In a year where entertainment has been full of surprises, Cold War still manages to stick out like a sore thumb. Polish, monochrome, and merely 88 minutes, viewers are treated to a timeless romance that justifies its Oscar buzz with masterful cinematography, skillful acting performances, and elegant design features. However, its experimental narrative flow may leave those less experienced in European film a little lost, yearning for exposition to fill some of its apparent gaps.
Whilst almost all Western films are character-driven, Cold War has its story told through its direction. 3-time BAFTA winner Pawel Pawlikowski (who also directed the Oscar-winning Polish film Ida) interprets the tumultuous love between young performer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and her teacher-turned-composer Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) as something akin to a Greek epic; spanning 15 years and multiple Eastern bloc nations. Dividing the events of the film between these nations, and the subsequent progressions of the careers of these characters, the landscapes Pawlikowski creates are truly stuff of legend. Zula’s performance scenes, dirndl-laden and with heavy socialist themes, are some of the film’s most entertaining. In 1949 Poland, grainy black-and-white footage of decaying churches and eerily empty mansions immediately evokes visions of struggle, a theme that continues throughout the performance. This is expertly contrasted by the life of 1950s France, where extended sequences in ritzy clubs give the audience a gateway into the world of cheap liquor, loud music and carefree dancing, flashes of a simple life that elude the onscreen couple. Their own turbulent relationship is just as clear; scenes that would naturally fit a two shot are instead replaced with a series of medium shots that separate the two, making some of their duologues as painful and tense for the audience as the characters themselves feel.
None of this means, however, that the actors aren’t putting equally as good performances forward. Kulig and Kot share an unusually strong chemistry given the constant stress their characters are collectively put under, providing near-natural performances both in passionate romantic scenes and moments of pure hatred for one another. Individually, it is incredibly easy to watch Kot; his take on the tortured artist, jumping from relationship to relationship though only truly in love with music, is something audiences have seen before but now have a poster boy through which to visualise the personality. Kulig requires a little more time to figure out; as her career progresses from the stage to the recording studio and back again, and her character goes from uneducated young hopeful to industry veteran, she again seems bound only to the music. Her motivations are subtle, but accessible; when these are understood, her seemingly drastic emotional shifts start to make more sense. In any case, her singing and movement are second to none, and paired with Kot’s masterful understanding of how to direct music (or at least perception of this understanding), makes the film strong. What minor roles other cast members play, such as Wiktor’s first partner Irena (Agata Kulesza) or Zula’s later partner Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), are fine additional roles, but have substantially minimal screen time, allowing the audience to focus on the two leads.
Where the film unfortunately falters for a foreign audience is its progression. At points, it can feel very stop-and-start; with some scenes taking place up to 5 years after their immediately previous ones. Subsequently, Pawlikowski’s and Janusz Glowacki’s screenplay can appear to miss important developments in each of the lead character’s lives. For example, the audience must simply piece together themselves Wiktor’s struggle to escape Poland by becoming a French citizen early in the film, or his emotional turmoil when Zula decides not to follow him; similarly, Zula’s child with Kaczmarek and shifts from abandoning Wiktor for years at a time to then later arriving at his doorstep smiling may seem a bit rushed. In a collective sense, it may simply seem that the film’s various locations provide an excuse for the characters to have sex in European cities as romantic as their relationship wishes it could be. For casual viewers who are more used to conventional film, where subplots and character objectives tend to have strong explanations and ties to one another in the script itself, this may be a cause for potential alienation. Should viewers want the story spoon-fed to them, as is very much the case nowadays, there will be times when the film’s European style of storytelling fails them.
Ultimately, it is easy to see why Cold War is a likely Oscar nominee (if not winner). It is even easier to see why Poland selected it as the country’s sole film for potential Oscar nomination. It already swept the European Film Awards. Now, if overseas audiences can overlook its exposition-based barrier, there is no reason it can’t do just as well over here.