Starring Joanna Kulig. In Polish and French, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski’s last film, 2013’s Oscar–winning Ida, was shot in Poland by the same DOP as Cold War, also in luminous black-and-white with an old-fashioned, squarish format and a terse running time. Set in the 1960s, that tale takes place within a couple of weeks, while this begins in a desolate snowscape of 1949.
A small field unit travels by bus, collecting folksongs and dances from remote parts of the still war-torn country. They’re led by suavely handsome pianist and conductor Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and chain-smoking academic Irena (Agata Kulesza, seen as the villain in Ida). They’re assembling a theatrical troupe, through a hasty audition process—sort of a Polish Idol thing—during which Wiktor is taken with a young, blond singer called Zula. She’s played by the overpowering Joanna Kulig, also of Ida and The Woman in the Fifth, the director’s only dud.
Zula knows local folksongs along with more international fare, like a Russian movie tune that serves as a recurring theme here, in multiple languages. The team’s bus driver, called Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) is actually a commissar with little interest in music but a mandate to start shaping the company (called Mazurka, after the national dance) in a manner that will please their new Soviet overlords. He isn’t that bad a fellow, but has the peculiarly Communist skill of making proclamations of social uplift sound like ominous threats.
Irena finds the agitprop absurd, and says so, while Wiktor holds his tongue about this and much else. Kaczmarek also his eye on radiant Zula, but you get the feeling she can protect herself; she’s on parole for having attacked her own father. “He mistook me for my mother,” she explains coolly when Wiktor asks. “And I showed him the difference with a knife.”
The conductor’s taciturn nature and the singer’s manic intensity create an erotic push-pull that alternately drives them forward and forces them apart for just under 90 minutes, in the most ravishing tone poem since Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Born in Poland but raised in England (Emily Blunt’s movie breakthrough was in his My Summer of Love), Pawlikowski is stingy with emotion, but enlivens things with sudden jump cuts to different times and locations, with a long section in 1950s Paris nightclubs and recording studios unfolding like an album of indelible jazz photos. To say more would spoil the reverie, but trust that Cold War, which views ideology as a rough canvas for romance, is one of the finest movies of the decade.