The most passionate love affairs in life are often also a strong tug of war. The relationship between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (early Cannes Best Actress contender Joanna Kulig) in Cold War is such an affair, but Oscar winner Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida) employs a simple technique that makes the title not just a reference to the setting (Europe in the 1950s), but also a reflection of the tumultuous love between its two leads. At key points in the film the director decides to let the more dramatic moments unfold off-camera, instead transitioning into the next phase of the tug of war between centered Wiktor and moody Zula through black screen and silence. This keeps the audience intentionally at a distance, but somehow makes the heart ache even more for this doomed couple as their encounters all over Europe unfold. Cold War is at its heart a very melodramatic story, but through Pawlikowski’s directorial choices manages to keep the worst excesses of the genre at bay.
When they first meet, musical director Wiktor, holding try-outs to form a choir, immediately sees something special in the younger Zula, who brings as much attitude to her audition as she does singing talent. It doesn’t take long for the two to become romantically involved, but the hot-and-cold Zula bails on their joint attempt to flee to the West. A few years later they meet again in Paris, the first of several reunions all over the continent, each more passionate but also more tempestuous. One of Wiktor’s Parisian friends at one point describes a swinging pendulum as a metaphor for love. It’s clear that Zula is meant as the pendulum in the film, like ebb and flow attracting and subsequently pushing Wiktor away. When, back in Poland after almost two decades, their relationship has finally reached calmer waters, a dramatic decision locks that state of before unseen bliss for eternity.
In less restrained hands emotions would have run high, but anybody who has seen Ida knows that Pawlikowski is a director who likes a visceral reaction to come from the power of his imagery rather than from melodramatic high-wiring. Again pairing up with cinematographer Łukasz Żal, he lays such delicacy in his meticulously executed mise en scène that each frame evokes a strong reaction without the actors having to do the heavy lifting. Not that he can’t rely on Kulig to bring the goods in this regard. With a highly charismatic performance of a character that could have easily led to too much scenery chewing, Kulig steals the show by virtue of Zula’s nature. Kot’s Wiktor, the centered ying to Zula’s yang, leaves the actor little more to do than perpetually smoke and try to fruitlessly hold on to the affections of Zula. However, Kulig needs Kot to play off of, to reach the heights that she does, and wouldn’t have been able to do so without his more somber performance.
One could argue whether the film needs its crisp black-and-white photography, a criticism that can also be leveled at Ida. The careful tech work can give the film an air of artificiality, making this war between lovers indeed a cold one. But in defense of Pawlikowski’s choice, the monochrome tones fit the era and most of the locales like a glove, whether it be a smoky Parisian jazz club or a Stalinist Warsaw theater. But Pawlikowski and Żal do more than that: at moments when the relationship between the two lovers goes on a downward slide, the contrast in the image is intentionally heightened. It is a subtle technique, but it has a visceral effect that deepens the pain. It is this kind of filmmaking choice that makes Cold War more than just a visually perfect film, and the work of a true master.