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Cold War (2018)
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by Jay Seaver

"Quite good, but too one-sided."
4 stars

Pawel Pawlikowski's "Cold War" is not quite so good as his previous film "Ida", perhaps because it often seems so ambivalent rather than focused, even as a grand love story. Everyone goes back and forth, alternately toward and away from their goals, creating their own obstacles despite positioning the conflict as what's between them. There's tragedy in that, the sort that even those who don't have as complicated a relationship with a nation and its repressive government as the person they love can attest to, though not always the most cinematic drama.

The film opens in 1947, with a team from the new government in Poland traveling the countryside to record traditional folk music. Wicktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) are the experts, while Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) reports back to their masters. The end result is "Mazurek", an academy and performing company dedicated to promoting Polish music and communist values, and while Zula (Joanna Kulig) is not the most talented student in the initial class, she's clever and ambitious, probably what initially drives her to get close to Wicktor. It seems to develop into something more, but as Kaczmarek shifts the company's focus to propaganda from preservation, Wicktor and Irena become disillusioned. Wicktor sees an opportunity to flee during a concert in Berlin, but Zula isn't quite so certain this is a good idea for her.

Pawlikowski based this film on his own family history, and this maybe explains him being somewhat protective of it, as he and co-writers Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski let it meander and sometimes focus on interesting anecdotes rather than streamlining it and clarifying motives to keep it more pointed in a specific direction. It's a decision that can make the film feel loose and shaggy at times, but also explains why some elements get a little extra time - Wicktor working on a film score is meaningful to Pawlikowski, for example. The opening stretch of Wicktor and Irena traveling through Poland to collect its traditional music feels like it could be a film itself, or at least something that serves as the backdrop all the way through one, but serves its purpose well here.

That willingness to jump around is a good fit for the story, which is not one of constancy but of intersections; it's easier to fit ten years into an hour and a half if it's all composed of pivotal meetings rather than a continuous evolution. Wicktor's point of view is better suited to that technique, although he's maybe not the most interesting central character, and Tomasz Kot doesn't appear to find more than he's given with the character, who is pleasant and with enough of the right principles to earn his place as a protagonist, but seldom seen wrestling with his life-changing decisions. The film could use a few more moments where rash decisions can be seen to come from well-articulated passion or fear, as opposed to being buffeted by invisible forces of fate.

It also could do with focusing on Zula a little more, as opposed to Wicktor; though the film is never really in either lover's head, she seems clever and conflicted, making dangerous choices and regretting them, but we don't often see her going through that so much as him reacting as she shows up in his life with a new status quo. Even with that being the case, she turns in an excellent performance; she seems to have a much better handle on putting what's in her head on her face than anyone else in the movie, and as the film goes on, the audience can see her shift the balance between love and pragmatism, and pull out an almost fully backgrounded story about how she repeatedly finds success only to give it up for a man who doesn't always seem to value her achievement.

The film is also a feast for the senses, most obviously visually, by calling back to the period in which it is set with crisp black and white, Academy-ratio cinematography. Pawlikowski's eye is fantastic (much facilitated by cinematographer Lukasz Zal), and the bookending image of a faded church, top open to the sky, is likely to stick with the audience, culture reduced to eyes watching you and the only escape the heavens. How it uses music is more subtextual but sneakily clever - the film makes the audience fall in love with traditional and folk music at the start, but it becomes corrupted and homogenized as the film goes on and the government takes further control and Wicktor's passion becomes a job, jolting back to life when "Rock Around the Clock" comes out of a jukebox, far away from where things started but also a deliriously unburdened reminder of what music could represent.

For all that the title refers to the past, I'm rather curious how much certain events are meant to mirror the present rise of nationalist sentiment in Poland, as there are easily-cut moments when the filmmakers do take moments to comment on it - a comment about a song sung in Lemkov not being considered "ours", and the presentation of a blonde, Slavic face being as important in some quarters as showing the actual proletariat. One also wonders, a bit, how much of this focus on the decidedly less-interesting Wicktor comes down to a man making the picture and taking parts of the relationship for granted.

Indeed, a little more information on just what part of the story most inspired the filmmakers and how much they embellished it would probably be revealing, although not necessary. "Cold War", on its own, is a beautiful film of a tragic romance, pulling in on what may already seem like a receding, abstract piece of history for many until its human-scale effects hit home.

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originally posted: 10/27/18 11:37:17
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 New York Film Festival For more in the 2018 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 AFI Fest For more in the 2018 AFI Fest series, click here.

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