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Five Cent Cine At Home: Cold War

Hot blood, cold war

In a year in cinema dominated by both race and films “based on a true story,” “Cold War,” filmed in black and white, seems a throwback to the fraught, impassioned, star-crossed, noir-like love-and-sex stories of earlier eras: “The Indiscretions of an American Wife” (1953), “Last Tango in Paris” (1974), and perhaps especially the many versions of the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, though the problems faced by Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) go well beyond the family squabbles of the Montagues and Capulets. Of today’s love stories, it most resembles “A Star is Born,” though that film has a clear, familiar narrative. “Cold War,” to its credit, does not.

The opening scenes present Wiktor and his colleague-girlfriend Irena (Agata Kulesza) functioning like Alan Lomax in the Mississippi Delta, scouring the Polish countryside for teen-age boys and girls who can dance and sing in “authentic” folklorish fashion. They (or, it might be said, Wiktor) pull the blond, sensuous, gifted city-girl Zula (“a bit of a con”) from the crowd of aspirants. The company is assembled, and Wiktor, a talented musician, takes on the role of musical director. As expected, he also becomes intimate with Zula, initiating a love affair that will span more than 15 years — 1949 to 1965 — and that will find Wiktor and Zula dealing with their relationship not only in Poland, but also in Berlin, Paris, Yugoslavia, and a gulag.

The chronological and geographical scope of the film would be a challenge to any director.

The chronological and geographical scope of the film would be a challenge to any director, and some viewers may find the abrupt transitions in time and space confusing, irritating, or simply insufficient. Director and screenwriter Pawel Pawlikowski (“Ida,” 2013) instead uses the plot’s complex interstices to lend the story nuance, mystery, and unpredictability.

On one level, “Cold War” is the simple tale of two people in love, struggling with the boundaries and vagaries of Iron-Curtain, cold-war Europe. But Wiktor and Zula’s frustrating, often centrifugal relationship is as much a product of their differences as it is of politics and borders. Wiktor is quiet, educated, pensive, even-tempered, and cosmopolitan, assured in his ability to live comfortably in the West, willing to commit to an existence that’s reasonable if not perfect, and he’s 20 years older than his lover. Zula is emotional, uneducated, insecure, prone to outbursts (“Michael fucked me 6 times in one night, what about you?”), bound to place and culture in ways she hardly understands, and, for reasons that are not entirely clear, unwilling to commit to the Western artist-garret life that Wiktor offers.

Wiktor plays jazz piano at “L’Eclipse,” a Paris club. Zula sings jazz, and even records in French a jazz LP, which she impetuously tosses into the gutter, calling it a “bastard” because she understands the music is not authentic to her. She seems happiest and most exhilarated dancing to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock”; the jazz and rock arguably providing a metaphor of the lovers’ generational differences and of her youthful sexual needs.

The film’s disjunctures and tensions — which are real yet modulated, in contrast to those of a horror film or a le Carré story — owe much to these dichotomies. They also emerge from the here-and-there, somewhat menacing presence of another character, Kaczmarerk (Borys Szyc). Unlike Wiktor and Irena, who are intellectuals with Western sensibilities, Kaczmarerk, the manager of the folk dancing troupe, is a plodding Communist Party apparatchik. Though no villain, he’s by no means likeable, and his relationship with Zula could be seen as disgusting. But unlike the protagonists, he is practical, attuned not only to his own unpalatable lust but to the Party’s goals and needs.

Lukasz Zal’s cinematography is exquisite and Kulig is superb in a difficult role that explores Zula’s multi-valent personality. But some may find “Cold War” an interpretive nightmare, full of unexpected, and often inexplicable, or even perverse, twists and turns. It’s better to think of this quality as a virtue. As we left the theater, a group of 20-somethings stood in the lobby, debating why Wiktor had decided, fatefully, to return to Poland. That questioning is what makes a fine, innovative film — an apt description of “Cold War.”


Date: 2018

Director: Pawel Pawlikowski

Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, and Agata Kulesza.

Cold War ★★★ 1/2 (out of 4 stars)

Subtitled: in English; Language: Polish

Runtime: 89 minutes

Oscars: Nominated 2019: Best Foreign Language Film (Poland); Best Achievement in Directing; Best  Achievement in Cinematography (Lukasz Zal)

Other Awards: 45 wins and more than 100 nominations worldwide

Availability: Streaming: Amazon Prime, Hoopla and Vudu; rental or purchase, Amazon and Apple TV; see JustWatch here.

Review originally published February 5, 2019


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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

https://www.2filmcritics.com

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