Movie Review: Cold War.
Cold War feels like an artistic artifact from a bygone era, which is a compliment for its cinematography and a critique of its gender politics.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s drama showcases an artist’s eye for composition and arrangement. Filmed in black and white, each scene creates a tableau that speaks to infinite care in its crafting, much like fellow Oscar nominee, Roma. Elements of classic early cinema from Russia, France, and Italy blend to create a unique and sophisticated cinematographic experience. For modern audiences, the old familiar biases that value a man’s interior life over a woman’s, relegating her to an object of fascination and attainment, are highly problematic. It’s a shame, since Pawlikowski’s depiction of the actual politics of the time are astute. It’s the gender politics of his protagonist that are suspect.
Cold War (2018)
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza) travel across the rugged mountain regions of Poland. Poland, under sway of Stalinist Russia, is collecting folk music and dance to present to the proletariat -and to impress the materialistic West. The two artists gather many young performers, looking to put together a cultural variety show to take to East Berlin.
Among the young performers is Zula (Joanna Kulig) a talented but scarred young woman. Wiktor falls for his young protege, and as they develop a romantic relationship Zula rises to become the star of the show. When the show becomes commandeered by the communist party in order to extol propaganda, Wiktor and Zula must decide if they should stay or flee to the West.
Pawlikowski commands the eye with expert skill. Every shot is meticulously arranged. The use of pillarboxing (1:37 to 1 aspect ratio) creates an image that feels visually taller than the modern widescreen ratio. Added to this verticality is the pervasive use of actual and virtual proscenium arches. Nearly every scene has either columns, pillars, curtains, or actual stage arches that direct the eye to a central focal point. Doorways, building edges, and even people (whose faces are cut off by the aspect ratio) act as arches to center Wiktor and Zula in the emotionally fraught scenes.
Against this vertical, personal focus, we see the settings as very horizontal and pastoral. Even without widescreen, Pawlikowski uses negative space and off-center framing to create the feeling of wide, sprawling landscapes. Together, we get a camera that can cue us into the emotional temperature of the given scene.
The performances in Cold War are very strong. Joanna Kulig puts on a show as Zula, literally and figuratively. Her has nice vocal range, able to carry the robust traditional Polish folk songs as well the more muted and sultry Parisian Jazz songs. Her character is hampered by a lack of focus on her interior life (more on that later) but Kulig overcomes this by perfectly conveying much with body language and facial expression. She’s phenomenal.
I liked Tomasz Kot as Wiktor, while hating Wiktor as a person. The script is clearly in sympathy with him, but I was not. Kot delivers a soulful and smouldering performance that made me appreciate his performance despite never coming around to agreeing with his character.
The rest of the cast has to be commended for such rigorous and demanding performances. All of the young singers and dancers are a treat to watch. Agata Kulesza is treated thanklessly by the story and the script, yet I found her role to be a much needed moral center of the early film. Borys Szyc is likewise tasked with playing a thankless party sycophant, a true believer who compromises the art and lives of those around him for ideology and personal gain. He rose to the challenge, and I was actually glad to see him reappear at the end of the film, in a more humanized perspective.
My major gripe with Cold War is that I found the romance to be deeply problematic. Wiktor has power over Zula in nearly every way conceivable. He is higher in social standing, party affiliation, age, and is essentially her boss. Meanwhile, we see that Zula has been victimized by the men in her life and has learned to manipulate them in turn for safety. When threatened, she flirts, making as many allies as she can with a smile and a dance. When she turns informant for Borys’ character, we confirm our suspicions that she will do anything to survive a society that affords her no power and precious little safety. Wiktor starting a sexual relationship with the much younger performer under his supervision is just another man asserting his dominance. He may feel he’s the tragic lover like Romeo; I very much doubt Zula feels anything like a Juliet.
While we do see Zula maneuver this fraught dynamic, the narrative is always siding with Wiktor against her. We get inside his head, see his journey, linger on his emotions. For much of the film, Zula is absent. She’s not his equal in even interior detail. Several times the film could have switched to her perspective; instead we get a hard cut to a future Wiktor, seeing the results on him of her unseen actions. It’s all about what he’s feeling and doing. He’s the subject, she’s the object. That sucks.
I wanted to like Cold War for what it accomplished cinematically, and for the excellent performances. I just couldn’t swallow the biases that soured the whole thrust of the narrative. Cold War is beautifully filmed. It handles the thorny nature of describing Stalinist communism in Poland in a way that humanizes and illuminates central truths of human nature. The music and performances are fantastic. I liked the acting, and Joanna Kulig should easily become a household name. I just hated that such beauty and insight takes a backseat at every turn for yet another lament of the plight of privileged men. After centuries of artistic works elegizing the tragedy of the great white penis, I’m goddamn tired of hearing it.