Cold War review: don’t let this Polish Casablanca escape

COLD WAR ★★★★ ​
(M) 88 minutes

Play it, Pawel. Cold War is like a Polish Casablanca – a beautiful, doomed love story between two people whose romance is both formed and deformed by the politics of post-war Europe.

A good melodrama can go a long way, even in a mere 88 minutes.Credit:Palace Films

It's a family story for Pawel Pawlikowski , one of the more gifted directors now working in Europe (he won best director at Cannes for this film). He dedicates it to his parents, who had a tempestuous relationship over many decades and across several countries. He has fictionalised them to allow more freedom and modernity, even as he looks back at earlier eras of cinema. Thus, Cold War has the epic feel that Hollywood romance once had, where great events take place in the background as two gorgeous people lock eyes in the foreground. And yet the form is more elliptical and less obvious than a contemporary American romance might be. Pawlikowski as scriptwriter strips back, so that scenes are mere suggestions for the viewer; Pawlikowski as director is more lush, with a strong graphic sense. That makes the film seem both restrained and richly melodramatic.

Pawlikowski is 61. He learned his craft in British documentary of the 1990s, having moved to London with his mother at age 14. He returned to Poland six years ago. The first scene is pure imagined documentary, as we see a man with a lived-in face playing a Polish bagpipe, in a muddy village in 1946. It's shot in a gorgeous, contrasty black and white that suits this subject.

Two colleagues, Irena and Wiktor, are visiting remote areas to record folk songs, often in regional languages. Their driver, Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), is a crude man, but he expresses the party line when he says it's a pity they don't sing in Polish. The times are complex. Many Poles hate both the Germans and the Russians for their recent crimes against Poland, but the Soviets are now their 'friends'. It's clear that Kaczmarek isn't just the driver: he's an ideological policeman. His character is a clever way of showing how the state will have a hand in everything that happens to these characters.

Irena and Wiktor are selecting talent for a new state-run academy of folk arts. The recruits will train intensively in an old chateau, turning folk art into state culture. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) is musical director; Irena (Agata Kulesza) teaches movement and dance. The outstanding new recruit Zula (Joanna Kulig) is also the most rebellious. Irena doesn't like her; she tells Wiktor that this beautiful blonde teen killed her own father. Zula explains that she didn't kill him, but she did take a knife to him 'when he mistook me for my mother'.

Zula and Wiktor become lovers. Their affair jumps forward several years with each sequence, then back. By the mid-1950s the folk troupe has become internationally famous, invited to perform across the Soviet bloc. On a trip to Berlin, Wiktor plans their escape, a simple walk from the Soviet sector into the British, but she doesn't show. We'll never have Paris, to paraphrase Bogart, but there's plenty more. A good melodrama can go a long way, even in a mere 88 minutes.

There's so much to like here. The brilliant music, ranging from eastern European folk to jazz in Paris, where Wiktor becomes a film composer; the performances of both lead actors, so well cast; the wisdom of the script in which love is never simply enough; the very 'adultness' of the story, where the romance becomes more powerful because it's set against events that matter. As always, some of the best films of the year arrive late, jostling for attention in the American awards season, risking the noise of the festive season. Don't let this one get away.

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