It’s a rare occasion when a film leaves me at a loss for words, but such is the case with the exceptional beauty and unremitting brutality of Polish writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War. This is the uncommon sort of film that deserves its award-season accolades just as much as it deserves an audience — which I sincerely hope it finds. While Pawlikowski may not be a household name outside the arthouse and the prospect of a subtitled period melodrama about an ill-fated romance may put off some theatergoers, don’t let any of that deter you — Cold War is one of the best films of this year or any other.
To define Cold War as a melodrama is somewhat reductive and certainly doesn’t capture the visceral appeal of what Pawlikowski has accomplished here. Set against the backdrop of Eastern bloc Poland, the film’s decade-spanning narrative revolves around the turbulent love affair between musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and young folk singer Zula (Joanna Kulig), a couple tossed together and then torn apart by the world around them. But what looks like a standard potboiler romance on paper transcends any such limitations in execution, as Pawlikowski presents his story of star-crossed lovers with such immediacy and earnestness that even the hardest of hearts can’t help but be moved.
The inevitable bond that develops between Wiktor and Zula becomes so moving and engrossing that what initially seems to be little more than an inappropriate fling takes on the weight of a supermassive black hole, drawing its participants inexorably toward trauma and strife in spite of their best efforts. But none of this would work without a whip-smart script from Pawlikowski, and his exquisitely economical storytelling knows exactly where to suggest rather than divulge. His narrative focuses on the small, human moments within a story rife with opportunities to be swept away by salacious spectacle, keying in on the more mundane tragedies of the mistakes two people in love often make, even as the stakes are raised almost incomprehensibly high by the political realities of Pawlikowski’s setting. That the third act overplays its hand slightly (a pun you’ll get after you see the film) is perhaps the only thing keeping Cold War from perfection — but if that’s a shortcoming, it’s at least an understandable one given the severity of the subject matter.
As good as his script is, it’s really the directorial aesthetic established by Pawlikowski that proves to be Cold War‘s strongest recommendation. There’s a reason he took home Best Director honors from this year’s Cannes Film Festival and is nominated for the same at the upcoming Oscars, after all. Shot in the 1.375-1 Academy aspect ratio, his nearly square frames are a masterclass in expressionistic composition, and cinematographer Lukasz Zal’s sensuous black-and-white achieves what Alfonso Cuaron tried and failed to capture with Roma (Zal is also up for top honors come February). Lyrical, elegiac and haunting, Cold War is a beautiful film about an ugly world and, as such, could hardly be more resonant in our current cultural climate. Whatever qualms you may have, put them aside and go see this one on the big screen — but be forewarned: It’s not the kind of film to be easily forgotten.