“Who knew true love could be so chilly?” should read the tagline for Cold War, Paweł Pawlikowski’s 85-minute romantic epic that’s about as steamy as a Siberian gulag and as emotive as a Yorgos Lanthimos character.
Cold War tracks the on-and-off relationship between Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig), two fatally damaged and permanently unhappy people across fifteen years through postwar Europe. Wiktor, a quiet conductor and composer, travels the ravaged Polish countryside searching for talent in traditional peasantry folk music. Zula stands out to him, perhaps not from talent alone, and the two’s romance is born as an inevitable affair of physical attraction.
From subject matter alone, Cold War isn’t trekking through any unchartered territory. Ill-fated romances have forever been an art staple, but its narrative premise is ultimately not its source of originality. Holding itself above the tropes of the romance drama, Cold War throws out anything and everything that a normal audience would find appealing, including but not limited to charming characters, flowing intimacy, and a blossoming narrative. What we’re left with is a deeply fragmented and shattered product, but one demanded by its bitter iciness. Wiktor and Zula are far from likable, and their connection as star-crossed lovers is one that’s viewed cynically by the film with much distance, both emotionally and literally.
We don’t see the whole picture- we don’t even necessarily see enough of it- but that’s what makes Cold War such an enthralling period piece. The brief story covers a whopping 15 years, but it skips ahead so often, at seemingly arbitrary points in time, that it manages to condense a lifetime into a breezy 85 minutes. Often, Cold War seems to imitate a scratched record, skipping manically ahead every few seconds and losing all but the bare minimum needed for identification. Nevertheless, its blackout gaps in narrative actually allow it to transcend into a completely different work of enchanting art, freeing the audience to form our own conclusions and ponder the circumstances preventing these two lovers from escaping their hopeless misery.
This eccentric narrative organization informs the entire style of the film, leaving no area untouched by its glacial coolness. It’s impossible to fathom the film’s cinematography in any other form- a static 4:3 black-and-white cage entrapping our lovers in the dimly-lit cityscapes of war-recovering Europe.
Music and sound offer little refuge. For a film centered around two musicians, Cold War opts to almost totally deny the audience the warmth of nondiegetic sound. Music becomes a temporary way for us to break out of the suffocating oppressiveness of the film, just as Wiktor and Zula’s recurring affair serves as a fleeting fix of happiness to escape their perpetual discontent. Traveling through 15 years shows a dramatic shift in musical changes, but the louder and happier the song, the taller and more reinforced the emotional barrier seems to rise between Wiktor and Zula.
Cold War concludes about as unsatisfyingly as one could hope and expect, given the contempt the film seems to show for its doomed lovers. Zula is despairingly unhappy no matter where she is, economically and romantically, and Wiktor can’t seem to stand her much either. They don’t always feel like soul mates, and indeed every fiber of their interactions seems to suggest otherwise, yet they always find their way back to one another, entangled till death.
Ultimately, Cold War’s aloof style and structure is both its strongest facet and most dangerous creative risk, shrugging its audience off as dejectedly as Zula’s final melancholic line. Its insistence on incompleteness is certainly admirable, but the final verdict will be left to each individual viewer. Somewhere underneath all its detachedness and unfeeling bitterness is a touching and tragic tale, but the hushed refusal to tell that story conventionally often turns out to be a far more titillating exercise.