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EIFF: Cold War review - Joanna Kulig sets chilly miniature epic ablaze

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Verdict: This tale of passionate, fragmented romance set against a backdrop of Cold War Europe is a work of haunting beauty.

Paweł Pawlikowski’s beautiful miniature epic Cold War begins in 1949 with musicians Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) trawling through the icy Polish countryside, looking to form a national troupe of traditional folk music talent. At an audition – sort of like an Eastern Bloc version of The Voice – Wiktor’s eye is caught by competitor Zula (Joanna Kulig), an enigmatic but self-assured young woman with a reciprocating eye cast on Wiktor.

Zula isn’t anything like the authentic rural singers she auditions with – she’s from the city, and the tune she performs is taken from a Russian film she saw as a girl. A suspicious and jealous Irene tries to warn Wiktor off, claiming Zula is on parole for a familial act of violence (“My father mistook me for my mother and I showed him the difference,” she states indifferently). But it’s too late: Wiktor and Zula have fallen for each other, and commence a passionate, tempestuous love affair.

Fast forward a few years and the folk ensemble is a sensation, touring across Europe. When the Communist government inevitably ‘encourages’ the inclusion of some verses about agricultural reform in their repertoire, Wiktor sees a trip to Berlin as an opportunity for himself and Zula to slip under the Iron Curtain.

Only Zula doesn’t show up for their rendez-vous, and Wiktor crosses into the West alone. When we next meet Wiktor, he’s hunched over a jazz club piano; But this isn’t Berlin, it’s Paris, some years later – the first of many places he’ll be reunited with Zula over a period spanning more than a decade.

Cold War plays like a musical for much of its runtime – accompanying the couple’s border-hopping romance is a journey through the musical history of 20th century Europe. The film begins with ethnographic field recordings (some of them in actual fields) of old Polish folk songs which develop into orchestral performances of mesmerising power, and then into unnerving but somewhat kitschy Stalinist propaganda. In the West, we get a seductive jazz club, a horror film soundtrack recording and a wild dance to Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ captured in a fluent single take.

Narratively speaking, there’s parallels to be made with Damien Chazelle’s last feature, another bittersweet musical tale of doomed love from the perspective of a sad piano man. Visually, however, it’s siblings with Pawlikowski’s previous film Ida (2013), shot in exquisite monochrome and boxed into a 4:3 aspect ratio. As in Ida, cinematographer Łukasz Żal is fond of minimalist compositions with characters placed at the bottom of his frame; other times he finds Tarkovskian elemental texture in his images – it’s perhaps best described as La La Land by way of Ivan's Childhood.

Not just a good looker, it’s also an expertly paced film, convincingly condensing the scope of a romantic epic into less than ninety minutes. Simple cuts to black represent ellipses of many years, resulting in an episodic structure that leaves provocative gaps viewers must fill in themselves. It’s a narrative gamble that mostly pays off, though occasionally there’s a feeling of missing crucial information needed to emotionally contextualise the interactions between Wiktor and Zula.

It’s a small complaint remedied by exceptional lead performances. Thomas Kot is intense, managing to convey a significant feeling while retaining the patient coolness of his character. Joanna Kulig feels like a star from another time, possessing the sultry distance of Brigitte Bardot and the energy of Jeanne Moreau. Her presence sets fire to the Cold War the couple are engaged in, and watching their flame start to flicker out becomes devastating. Come its haunting ending, the film lingers like the memory of a long-lost love. 

Cold War is released on the 31st August, distributed by Curzon Artificial Eye.

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