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Cold War, a decades-spanning romance, will break your heart

And you’ll love it.

Joanna Kulig in Cold War
Joanna Kulig is the luminous star of Cold War.
Cannes Film Festival
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Cold War is a gorgeous, unyielding heartbreaker. A romance and a tragedy stretching across decades, it’s rich and allusive, a movie that promises to take its audience seriously and then delivers on that promise.

It also manages to do an end run around the problem with many lesser romances, which crop their timeline down to something manageable, only to tell what feels like just a slice of the story. Cold War grandly takes on the whole arc, from first meeting till the very end. And yet it still manages to feel like an intimate character drama, even as its scope goes much broader.

Most of all, Cold War — set in Europe in the early decades of the actual Cold War — balances its captivating central characters and their fiery love with the grand sweep of the places and times they find themselves in. It shows how those two things twine together, country and ideology pushing and prodding their characters into shapes that ultimately determine their fate. You couldn’t call it a political film, exactly, but if their stars are crossed, then politics had a hand in bending them, and the tragedy of that is almost, in the end, too much to bear.

Cold War’s aesthetic enhances its passionate love story

As with director Pawel Pawlikowski’s last film, 2013’s Ida, Cold War is shot in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is much closer to a square than the widescreen ratio used for most films.

Ida was about a young nun who leaves her life at the cloister and discovers just how small the borders of her life have been, and the tighter framing and austere coloration served the film well, along with Pawlikowski’s predilection for positioning his subjects in the bottom of the frame, leaving lots of empty space above their heads. Ida was about a woman whose simple, enclosed life was in conflict with her new desires and the greater ideas that had guided her life, and that translated to the screen visually as well as in the story.

These same techniques work to great effect in Cold War, a film about people with passionate souls whose time in history makes that impossible to indulge. The main characters are Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (the striking, marvelous Joanna Kulig, who is an actress to watch) — two people based very loosely on Pawlikowski’s own parents.

Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig star in Cold War
Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig star in Cold War.
Cannes Film Festival

Wiktor is an accomplished pianist and conductor in early 1950s Soviet Poland who, together with Irena (Agata Kulesza), is auditioning young people from the Polish countryside to train and perform in a traveling show meant to showcase the beauty of the simple, rural arts of Polish country folks. Young people show up to sing and dance, and some are selected to take part.

One of those is the luminous Zula, who it turns out isn’t really from the countryside and was recently let out of detention after she attacked her stepfather when he tried to assault her. But no matter. She has spunk and a beautiful voice and some kind of ineffable quality that makes her a star performer, and she and Wiktor fall in love.

The act is a hit with audiences and with the Polish authorities, who “encourage” Irena and Wiktor to add a few numbers praising the Soviet Union and its leader, Stalin. Clearly, they have no real choice in the matter, but the reward is a heightened travel schedule in their new status as a “calling card” for Polish culture in the broader USSR, which means trips to places like Berlin and Moscow.

Irena is unhappy with this, but Wiktor is irate, and he convinces Zula to defect with him to the West while they’re in Berlin. But Zula isn’t so sure, and at the last minute, she doesn’t show up. Wiktor leaves anyhow.

Cold War deftly shows how life under a stifling ideological regime shapes people indelibly

That’s just the first part of a long narrative that stretches for decades. In the intervening years, Zula and Wiktor never stop longing for each other, and the narrative picks up whenever they manage to make contact, which happens for various reasons and in the midst of shifting life circumstances for both.

Their relationship is, in many ways, very relatable to people across the ages. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, even when they try to move on. And closeness, as they discover, coupled with the passage of time, can mean that the person they love is one day unrecognizable.

Instant View - The 71st Annual Cannes Film Festival
Director Pawel Pawlikowski, actress Joanna Kulig, and actor Tomasz Kot at Cannes for the premiere of Cold War.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

That’s all complicated by the vast distance between the West and the Soviet Union, not geographically so much as ideologically. And it’s that distance, and the ways you might act in a free place versus one where free thinking is strongly discouraged, that ratchets up the tension between them.

But the longing never goes away. Cold War rivals most films I can think of in how much longing it packs into every scene, every frame perfectly composed (you could hang any of them on your wall) to electrify the empty spaces. Watching Zula or Wiktor alone, you feel the absence of their heart’s other half as keenly as they do.

And what takes Cold War from chilly but beautiful to swirling, beating ardor is its use of music. Wiktor and Zula are musicians, after all. Early on most of the music is carefully arranged and haunting Polish folk music, though Wiktor does let loose with some stunning Chopin as well (he is Polish, after all).

But as the story progresses, the folk songs give way, and in some cases reappear as sultry French jazz, an evolution that matches that of the characters. (And one memorable scene contains what I think will become the defining cinematic usage of “Rock Around the Clock.”)

Cold War’s Cannes premiere feels fitting; not only is it undoubtedly one of the best films in the festival, but it’s one among many that explore making art in repressive regimes. (And indeed, two filmmakers with films in competition, Russian Kirill Serebrennikov and Iranian Jafar Panahi, aren’t at the festival because they’ve been arrested and their movements restricted as punishment for their political views.)

But Cold War takes it a step further, deftly showing how people’s characters and choices are molded by the ideologies of the places they come from, and gaming out what that means for their greatest loves and longings. It’s a work of unspeakable beauty, one that doesn’t leave you when the film ends, and its deceptively simple focus on a love story can’t mask its cinematic achievement.

Cold War premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and is part of the official selection at both the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. It will open in US theaters on December 21.

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