Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski’s latest film, Cold War, captured some attention when it came seemingly out of nowhere and garnered multiple Oscar nominations in this year’s race. From a technical standpoint, it’s easy to see why the film has been received so rapturously. Its astounding black and white cinematography beautifully and poetically manages to capture a time and place in a way that so many movies of a similar nature aim to do but so rarely achieve. Its impeccable craftsmanship is evident in every frame.
The downside to is that, for all of its astounding imagery, this is a film that never manages to hit the emotional heights that you keep expecting or wanting it to hit. At least not for me. It’s great to look at and that’s indisputable. It’s also oddly lacking in emotion, which makes for an experience akin to the coldness of the film’s title.
The setting is 1949 Poland at the beginning of the communist era. Wiktor (Thomasz Kot) is an orchestra conductor and Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a singer. They both have spots to fill in a government sponsored song and dance company that’s primarily used as a conduit for propaganda. The two fall in love in spite of various other commitments, both professional and personal, and make a plan to go west together. Zula changes her mind at the last minute. This, of course, leads to a series of reunions and separations that make up the bulk of the film where the changing political times of the late forties and fifties serve as the backdrop.
Kot and Kulig are terrific in their respective lead roles and they do the best they can with the material with which they’ve been given to work. Unfortunately, Pawlikowski insists on emotional vagueness when building the main characters. Particularly problematic is Kulig’s character, Zula. Since the main focus is on the conductor, Wiktor, Kulig’s character Zula’s emotions are never fully explored and she remains an aloof presence throughout most of the film. There are never any satisfactory explanations as to why Wiktor feels such passion for someone who feels as if they’re at arm’s length emotionally. In a film like this it’s essential to feel the passion between two characters in a star crossed romance. I never felt that passion throughout the entire film. As a result, this one is a feast for the eyes and ears. Not so much for the soul.
Photo: Joanna Kulig & Thomasz Kot in Cold War
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