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Thursday, February 14, 2019

OSCARS 2019: Cold War (2018)

In the lead-up to this year's Oscar nominees being announced, it was widely assumed that Peter Farrelly would grab the fifth slot in the Best Director category. The “Green Book” director had been snatching up nominations all throughout award season. Considering the Academy gave that movie plenty of attention, even in categories it had no business being in like Editing, it's surprising this didn't come to past. Instead, some sanity intervened and Farrelly was denied his chance at a Best Director statue. Instead, the fifth nomination was taken by Pawel Pawlikowski for “Cold War.” Having previously won a Best Foreign Language Film statue for “Ida” in 2015, which he has another shot at this year, the Academy was apparently even more impressed with Pawlikowski's latest. It received a nod in Best Cinematography as well.

“Cold War” follows two lovers over the span of twenty years. In 1949, just as Poland is starting to recover from World War II, Wiktor puts together a project to record and perform traditional Polish folk songs. That is how he meets Zula, a teenage girl with a hauntingly beautiful voice. The two immediately fall for each other. However, once Wiktor's musical project is co-opted as Soviet propaganda, the two decide to flee the country. Over the next two decades, they will meet again in France, Germany, and other places. Their passion for each other will ebb and flow, as they make music together amid political change.

“Cold War” sounds like it has the scope of a historical epic. After all, this is a film that looks at how Europe changed falling the end of the second World War and the rise of the Soviet Union. Yes, “Cold War” is about these things in a way. We see art absorbed by politics, people fleeing persecution, and eventually the effects of espionage on the average citizen. Yet “Cold War” is ultimately much more personal than that. (Pawlikowski loosely based the central characters on his parents.) The political changes Europe faced during the Cold War era is equally a metaphor for how Zula and Wiktor's feelings towards each other evolve. There's a sexy sense of excitement as they escape to France, a sense of resentment settling in as they find work in Europe and Italy, an eventual sad resentment in Russia and back in Poland.

Pawlikowski further resists epicness by keeping the scale intimate. (And the run time short. Like “Ida,” the film is less than ninety minutes.) This is ultimately a film about falling in and out of love, a battle of wills between two people whose passions are only occasionally compatible. Wiktor and Zula can't quit each other but they can't stand each other at times either. The movie accurately captures the melancholy of trying to live without someone you love but finding yourself drawn back to them anyway. Yet there's a quiet humor to “Cold War” as well. You can see this in the way the two snipe at each other, how a lovely rendezvous on the grass turns into an argument. Or in how Zula breaks down the musical accomplishments they make together, or neg the extra lovers they gather. “Cold War” successfully captures quite a few emotions.

The movie is also really pretty. As with “Ida,” the film is shot in black-and-white. Instead of giving us sweeping vistas of Europe during this time of change, the scale remains personal. The camera focuses on Wiktor and Zula as they kiss and make love in a train car or on an empty street. There is still an undeniably beauty to the composition of these moments. The crisp, black-and-white photography is beautifully rendered, each shot composed in an elegant way. Music plays a huge part in the film, as “Cold War” also shows how folk music evolved into jazz or atmospheric musical scores. This only seems to further how personal and small scale everything is.

There's definitely something to be said for the style of acting in “Cold War.” Like “Ida,” there's a definite chilliness to the proceedings, a slightly detached and cold air to what happens. Despite that, the audience is never unable to pick up on the passion that pushes Zula and Wiktor together. Tomasz Kot, as Wiktor, never quite lets anyone know what he's feeling. He's a withdrawn and wounded guy, which Kot conveys perfectly with terse glares and silent nods. Where Wiktor is quiet, Zula is fiery with life. Joanna Kulig captures the petulance of a teen girl, which then grows into the bitterness of a scorned woman. Watching these two bounce off each other in various ways is easily the biggest joy of “Cold War.”

Honestly, this might be the best way to do films about the upheaval of history. Put the historical stuff in the background and foreground a more emotional, human story told with dark humor and wonderful performances. “Cold War” ends on an interesting ambiguous note, a moment I think film fans will be discussing the exact meaning of for years to come. Over all, I liked this one a lot, finding it to be much funnier and fleet-footed than I expected. And it's less of a bummer than expected too, which counts for a lot when watching dreary foreign language films. [8/10]

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