By Jake Triola
Not much more can be said about the “aching lushness” of Paweł Pawlikowski’s latest film. I won’t make comparisons to Casablanca (1942). They’re valid, but clearly not the essence of what the filmmaker is going for. But who can really know the intentions of any artist, and why does it matter once a piece of work belongs to the public? Well, with Cold War (2018), it would seem as if, more than anything, a story needed told; this story manifested itself in exactly the right mind at the right time, and that’s that. No questions asked.
Poland, Paris, Yugoslavia—the middle of the twentieth century. Tensions are high. Two people meet and fall madly in love: so much so that they refer to each other as “love of my life.” They are Zula and Wiktor, and they are based on and named after the director’s own parents. She is a singer and dancer, and he is a master musician beginning a new movement of folk performance for ritzy audiences. A story which we’d normally take for concocted by some romantic genius, the storyteller here manages to pull it off as something which actually would have happened in just the manner told in the real world.
When he goes into exile from his homeland of Poland and heads for Paris, she stays behind, continuing her performance career. Over the next decade or so, they continue to meet for excruciatingly short periods of time; the lens of this film does not focus on anything but these moments. “Focused” is a great descriptor for the lens of Łukasz Żal, who is deservingly nominated for his second Academy Award, the first from his work on Pawlikowski’s hit, Ida (2013), an even sparser film which joined the ranks of Bresson in its exploration of asceticism and a human being’s relation to it.
Pawlikowski’s style, as good as it is, might take some getting used to. And although said style is heavily-enforced, it never comes off as phony or unnecessary. Some might tell you this film is one of stark realism, but this is not the case. His characters are precise: they say exactly what’s on their minds in five words or less. Indeed, this comes at the expense of getting to know whatever version of him and her a filmmaker like Robert Altman would portray. Certain audiences looking for those kinds of characters might long for more Zula and Wiktor, but that just goes to show the merit in creating a story of familiarity. Moreover, that longing produced within each filmgoer is surely the point. If the filmmaker is not invested in them, nobody else will be. If there’s anything Pawlikowski can do as a writer, it’s get his audience invested.
Cold War’s ability to push and pull so forcefully and seemingly without any effort in such a tight 88 minutes is hypnotic. It spans much of Europe in one of its most vulnerable moments in history. It’s the shortest epic ever told visually. It will take you through actual infinite romance that you can believe in—something the world could use at this point in time.