4/10 After debuting in May 2018 at Cannes, where writer/director Paweł Pawlikowski won the festival’s best director award, and rolling out across several film markets overseas over a period of months, Polish- and French-language period drama Cold War has finally made it into more than 40 American theaters. In addition to being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s earned Oscar nominations for Pawlikowski and cinematographer Łukasz Żal, which would indicate it as a shoo-in for the Foreign Language award were it not for Roma and its 10 nominations.
Cold War is meant to be a primarily visual feast, but I can’t get behind what it’s doing visually. It’s a neat idea, but the movie would have been stronger with more traditional choices.
In Communist Poland 1949, music director Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) and singer and dancer Zula Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) fall desperately in love. They work for the communist propaganda machine but conspire to escape to France. Warski seizes the opportunity when it presents itself a couple of years later, but Lichoń remains with their company’s amorous agent, Lech Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc). The film flashes across the next decade and change in the lovers’ lives, sometimes landing on them building new lives with other people, sometimes on them trying desperately to find their way back to each other from opposite sides of the Iron Curtain.
What’s happened in Cold War is, instead of a traditional foreground/background relationship, they’ve gone with the subject of shots being low in the frame and what would traditionally be their background taking the top half or so of any given image. Combined with the almost-square 1.37:1 aspect ratio, it feels like the movie is using less than half of the frame at any given time. Some shots specifically, the important thing is happening in only about 10 percent of the image, and the rest is filler.
This could have worked if the traditional background elements were particularly important to Cold War’s visual language, and I think that was the idea – just as the Cold War backdrop the foreground love story is set against is so much more important, Cold War lets its images’ backdrops dominate the screen, both taking up slightly more of most images than the characters in the foreground and also dominating them from above.
But to pull something like that off, you have to use that space well, and they do at points, not nearly often enough. The master idea here is a good one and has been done successfully before, but Pawlikowski just doesn’t have good ideas for enough scenes to make it work here. Mostly, you just have characters with noticeably way too much headroom while an extremely visual story plays out in a tiny part of the screen, and it often leads to further compositional errors with background elements growing out of the main characters. It’s frustrating to watch.
Cold War is shot in black-and-white, with Żal saying that Poland is so grey that doing completely without color was the only option, but while the best modern – and decades-old – black-and-white films are color corrected for deep shadows and dramatic contrast, Cold War’s contrasts are muted. There is little difference between light and dark, with images feeling less like they’re meant to be in black and white and more like they’ve simply been drained of color.
Also, the movie isn’t set entirely in Poland. You could have done a standard artistic thing with Poland being all washed out, and then France being brightly lit with nice romantic saturation. The film’s best line is already “They say Warsaw is the Paris of the East.” It’s just another way Cold War could have been better and more mainstream at the same time.
It doesn’t help that the lead characters are such jerks. At the outset, Warski seems like he’s ready to get #metoo’d into the next century, and Lichoń only seems to appreciate his and Kaczmarek’s attention because it gives her greater station. As we revisit them at progressive points in their lives apart from each other, it seems apparent that getting back to each other isn’t either of their top priorities, then Lichoń is desperate to get to Paris with Warski, then they spend a few years together and make each other miserable, then Warski is desperate to get to Warsaw with Lichoń.
Cold War skips over several external conflicts that would have formed the basis for more traditional romantic period epics, most notably each character’s risky, illegal defections, but those scenes aren’t what Cold War is about. There are multiple points at which they could have lived happily ever after, but that’s not this story. Warski’s and Lichoń’s extended periods apart from each other, the other people they love along the way, they don’t matter, not even enough to get onscreen.
Even as they spend their lives mostly separated, sometimes by communism but more often by their own choices, the stories of their lives continue to be defined by their love for one another, either prickly and faithless or yearning to the point of madness and self-destruction. To Warski and Lichoń, nothing truly matters in the other’s absence. The story’s most dramatic moments may take place offscreen, but its wistful romance holds full sway regardless.
Cold War is probably going to mean a lot more to the people who lived through it. This includes Pawlikowski himself, who was born in Warsaw in 1957 and based the movie loosely on his own parents’ story. As much as I would prefer this story to be told in a more straightforward way, I have to respect the art, that Pawlikowski has clearly made the movie that best reflects his personal truth.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.