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There’s no filler in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War. Its central relationship is portrayed as hopscotch; told almost strictly in flash-forwards, it offers you only the meat of the romance and none of the fat. It’s efficient, but not entirely satisfying.
The 88-minute film begins rather startlingly with a blare of bagpipes and Polish peasants singing directly to the camera. It introduces a search in 1949 Poland by music directors Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) to find singers and dancers for the government’s effort to put on a traveling show highlighting folk art to inspire nationalism. During an audition, Wiktor is transfixed by Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young vocalist who confidently sings a Russian ballad. It may not be Polish, but Wiktor gives her the go-ahead anyway. Irena gossips that she heard that Zula did time for killing her father. Beautiful and dangerous? Wiktor’s really on the hook now.
Soon the two are having a tryst as the show becomes more and more successful, and Pawlikowski starts skipping ahead: 1951 Warsaw, 1952 East Berlin, 1954 Paris. In Berlin, Wiktor waits to meet up with Zula so they can defect, but she never arrives. So he goes to France and becomes a pianist in a jazz club. One night they meet, though they’re both currently with other people. Wiktor later tells his girlfriend, “I was with the woman of my life.” (Her reaction: “That’s wonderful. Let me go to sleep then.”)
Cold War continues in this way, presenting only a highlight reel of their relationship: reunions, arguments, reconciliations. And though there are passionate moments, it’s nearly impossible to feel their heat as the story keeps steadfastly skipping along. Filmed in stark black and white (like the director’s previous Oscar-nominated effort, Ida), the movie already feels cool; without the chance to settle in with these characters, they stay at even more of a distance.
These interludes also lack energy, with the lovers forlorn more often than they’re passionate. One exception takes place in a Paris club in 1957. While Wiktor kisses up to a new friend, Zula sulks at the bar, drunk and bored. Then “Rock Around the Clock” starts playing, and she comes alive: first bobbing her head, then twirling on the dance floor with any guy who’ll indulge her. She ends up on the bar and then falls into Wiktor’s arms, which feels like a douse of cold water on her mini party. Kulig, who’s been steadily transfixing, is pure magnetism here.
Also keeping the audience at a distance is the film’s politics; namely, if you’re not familiar with the state the world was in between 1949 and 1964, you’ll likely be lost in scenes such as Wiktor’s apparent deportation and not understand why he ends up in jail. Pawlikowski used such shorthand in the more successful Ida, too, but the story revolved around the Holocaust and not the intricate business of European socialism, as is the case here. But the gist is that it’s not only their whims that keep the couple drifting apart. Early on in the film, Zula tells Wiktor, “I’ll be with you ’till the end of the world,” and the bittersweet ending proves this to be the case. To an impatient viewer, though, it will only feel like forever.
Cold War opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.