Alongside Black Klansman, Cold War is one of the first heavy hitters from this year’s Cannes Film Festival to hit UK cinemas and there could hardly be a better film to announce the start of the autumn awards circuit. Without a doubt the front runner for the Best Foreign Language awards, Pawel Pawlikowski’s masterful new film is an intoxicating blend of formal excellence, phenomenal acting, and a straightforwardly told yet hugely touching love story. Based on the star crossed romance of Pawlikowski’s own parents, Cold War is both deeply personal and sweepingly epic without ever being indulgent.
Covering 20 years in just over 80 fleet minutes, there isn’t room for a single wasted moment. We open in rural Poland in 1949, at a music and dance school set up to train pro-Communist propaganda musicians. Every applicant has to prove their worth, and after some hilariously excruciating peasant caterwauling we’re introduced to Zula (Joanna Kulig), the only entrant to sing a song from the movies rather than a folk classic. She instantly commands the obsession of pianist and head teacher Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), and their whirlwind romance follows them for the next two decades across the Soviet Union and beyond, through various other partners and hardships.
It’s not hard to see why Wiktor falls so hard for Zula. She’s talented and interesting, excited by culture and the outside world rather than afraid of it, and Kulig is a force of nature in the role. Her charisma is transfixing right from the off, and when she really lets loose it’s like a hurricane has been unleashed from the screen, pinning you to your seat. It’s perhaps the best piece of screen acting I’ve seen since Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea, bringing three-dimensional life to a beautiful disaster of a character, possessing all the spirit and transporting power of a great piece of music.
From a simple peasant ballad about forbidden love that becomes the film’s refrain – reworked over and over as national tastes change – to the American rock playing in Paris nightclubs, the magic of music seeps into every moment of Cold War. It is both an escape from and tether to the characters’ roots, sometimes funnily bad, sometimes unbearably moving, and always working to further humanise its characters. There’s a universal appeal in drunkenly shimmying along to your favourite tracks, and even the state-assigned, overly patriotic manager of Zula and Wiktor’s troupe finds himself dumbstruck by the pair’s collaborations.
Kulig is obviously the star of the show, and though the other performances are inescapably lesser than hers, that’s not to say that it isn’t a formidable ensemble. Kot is suitably stoic as the only man that Zula doesn’t burn through in a matter of days, a steadfast presence with a wry sense of humour and air of superiority that gets him into trouble and Borys Szyc brings enough melancholy and social awkwardness to manager Kaczmarek to ensure he’s not a boring villain.
The Soviet Polish state is hardly presented in a positive light in Cold War, an institution simultaneously hopelessly inept and capably cruel, but its appearances are rare. For all the secret police and spies, their repression cannot diminish the love and art at the story’s centre, which is constantly overpowering the state’s efforts to make life more drab and miserable. There are a couple of truly shocking moments that make distressing use of Poland’s grim post-war history, as well as some broad satirical swipes, but for all the grand epic scope, Cold War never loses sight of the purely human stakes.
That Cold War manages to feel so sweeping despite its austere 4:3 aspect ratio is an enormous testament to cinematographer Lukasz Zal. His black and white camera work is never less than utterly gorgeous, even when its not drawing attention to itself. He and Pawlikowski find ways to both immerse and distance the audience; raging snowstorms engulf you, as do the live musical numbers, but under their unique use of light, cities and bodies of water take on otherworldly appearances. At points it even feels as if you can almost see the colours behind the monochrome, the world of the film reaching out to grab you and pull you in.
Though it may be moving at a pace you almost never see epics move at, there’s a sublime traditionalism to Cold War. This is a classic European love story, taking in the archetypal sights from the continent’s great capitals and in thrall to the sort of perfectly cinematic images that have defined the medium since its inception. There’s nothing new in someone sat in the centre of a theatre, watching the love of their life in a rapturous performance, but when it’s presented with acting of this calibre and shot so flawlessly, it’s like you’re seeing the distilled essence of cinema.