Written by Manohla Dargis
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Cast: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn
Cold War is one of those love-among-the-ruins romances that turn suffering into high style. Like its two sexy leads, the movie has been built for maximum seduction. It has just enough politics to give it heft, striking black-and-white images and an in-the-mood-for-love ambiguity that suggests great mysteries are in store for those who watch and wait.
It opens in Poland in 1949 with Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, a genius of slow-burning longing), a musician, touring the countryside gathering folk music. He and an attractively no-nonsense colleague, Irena (Agata Kulesza), record villagers whose plaintive, haunting music is a vestige of the rapidly receding past. The writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski doesn’t tend to overshare, but the government toady riding with Wiktor and Irena telegraphs that the recordings have a less than innocent purpose.
That official emissary is Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), who with Wiktor and Irena facilitates the creation of a folk dance and music ensemble, Mazurek, housed in a dilapidated country villa. (The ensemble is based on a real Polish group, Mazowsze.) It’s at this villa that young dancers, singers and musicians are to dedicate themselves to the nation’s patrimony (“music, born in the fields”) in what Kaczmarek describes as “the fierce and noble struggle.”
As Wiktor and Irena silently watch, conveying much through expressive silence, Kaczmarek tries to stir up the quiet crowd of applicants. “No more will the talents of the people go to waste — hurrah!” he announces, earning a weak cheer.
Pawlikowski packs a lot into Cold War, often elliptically. Wiktor and Zula soon separate and settle in different countries only to reunite and separate once more. Throughout, their longing for each other — as well as the music they make, together and apart — expresses searching ideas about art and authenticity, national identity and cultural nostalgia. Crucially, when Irena defends the ensemble, saying that its work is based on “authentic folk art,” Wiktor keeps silent. What they’re doing has little relationship to their field recordings, but like the urban audiences raptly watching these folk pastiches — emblems of a vanishing Poland — Irena is clinging to an identity that is nearly lost.
Pawlikowski has ideas he wants you to chew over, but at times his narrative brevity can make the story feel as if it’s stopping before it has really begun.