Writer and director Pawel Pawlikowski’s exploration of love in “Cold War” is unconventional to say the least. Rather than fill his frame with the traditional heartache and joyful scenes of a young couple in the throes of passion, his film focuses instead on the little moments in between, bypassing the instances of intimacy that endear an audience towards empathy. It’s a somewhat curious, somewhat admirable, somewhat maddening, somewhat majestic exercise that lingers far after viewing.
“Cold War” starts in the 1950s with musical director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) casting young Zula (Joanna Kulig) in his latest production. Their professional relationship blossoms into a romance. As Communism tightens its grip over Poland, the chance to abscond to Paris poses risks that may appeal to one but not the other. As the years go on, the journeys of both characters intersect and break apart for reasons just and mysterious, the toil of the Cold War a contributing factor to their love and identity.
With its tight box frame, the film is intimate and remote at the same time and with a sparse 88-minute runtime, it resolves almost just as quickly as it starts. Given that the story is told at the periphery, oftentimes after something momentous has happened in the characters’ lives, there is somewhat of a wall built between the viewer and them. It’s hard to empathize with their journey in the way we used to because we miss those crucial moments of recognition and identification. Yet somehow we still empathize with them. Somehow our minds fill in the blanks in their story especially as time passes, our memories flooding in the gaps in the narrative. It is a masterful technique.
With its gorgeous black and white photography and magnificent framing, the film feels expertly put together. Featuring a collection of different songs from folk to jazz to rock to emphasize the place in the time of the action, it brings the continuing eras to life in quick, efficient fashion.
It may not be accessible to all, but it is nevertheless easy to admire for its cinematographic chutzpah.