The essence of the beauty shown in “Cold War” [Poland/Competition] about the texture of lost love finding its way is less “Doctor Zhivago” in many ways but with certain psychological stylings that would have benefited “Red Sparrow” which seemed too caught up in the plot to formulate why the characters do what they do: survival. Zula (played with delicious cadence and intelligence by Joanna Kulig), is always looking out for number one, even though her heart leads her off in certain directions against her will. She doesn’t want anyone to tell her what to do but the balance of that and becoming just enough of a talent to survive is essential from her first audition in the Soviet Union for a peasant opera. The teacher/judges including her doomed lover Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) see something but are not sure what. Her past and its consequences becomes revealed in certain structures but the fact that much of it is left to speculation fuels her mystery. It also explains many of her later actions in terms of logic but also meaning
While the beauty of the folk beginning with the operatic music is inherently interesting, it is when they cross over into Berlin and then to the West as an act, that the film truly understands its plight. The infusion of the smoky rooms of the jazz and standards against the classical basis in the theater show the inherent discrepancies that for many people is hard to truly understand. Zula is a revelation in these circumstances because you feel the uncertain passage of time. It is only in the final moments that the film necessarily loses its grip on reality…not because of the decisions made but because of the lack of control at times on the character’s part which is a simply written choice perhaps for the sake of metaphor. The stilted contradiction of love and the reasoning behind it are sound because of the nature of the world, specifically at that time in concern to gender roles and even more specifically, political roles.
Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s visual approach starts with the use of the 1:33 aspect ratio (like his previous film “Ida”) as well as the black & white texture. While the lack of color it creates an almost dreamlike dreariness in the country sequences, its stark capture of the inherent black tones in the frame and in the city, especially during the performances, allow the audience to see Zula at her most vulnerable giving the film a sense of purpose. This idea is buoyed by the irony of the beauty of the peasant music Zula helps sing versus the standards that show her growth and embrace of Western culture yet the irony of the claustrophobia and shadows in the frame display a deeper chasm in what the world actually was in that time. The aforementioned ending moves the music to a stark change meant to display a certain degradation of sorts which again makes sense for the story but slows the actual cadence. All in all, though Kulig is a presence on screen with both a biting wit but also a classic beauty that belies the turmoil underneath.
By Tim Wassberg