I'm a pushover for doomed love. That may explain a few things.
I am also a pushover for directors who portray compelling characters in compelling situations and never take an easy way out. Pawel Pawlikowski is one of those directors. He became a favorite when I saw Ida at the 2014 Portland International Film Festival. Ida is an austere, restrained, deeply moving film that had me thinking of Ingmar Bergman and the great Czech film Closely Watched Trains. Cold War is no less remarkable.
Pawlikowski makes films that stay with me, the kind that I want to see again. His characters are sympathetic even when not always likable. Artistic integrity is another quality that comes to mind. These are films of subtlety and grace that promise to reward repeated viewings.
Cold War (trailer) like Ida, is shot in glorious black and white. Cold war tableaux play out in shades of shadow and darkness in Poland and in a Paris that offers escape but never refuge. Creation of mood and dramatic tension is subtle and masterfully done. I struggle to write about Pawlikowski. Much is lost in the telling because so much is visual. Like Shirin Neshat in Looking for Oum Kulthum, he conveys emotion in image. A profile, a glance, a gaze, a half-smile, all are revelatory.
What passes for a brief plot synopsis, impressions to give an idea of what happens. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Irena (Agata Kluesza) are co-directors of a touring troupe that performs traditional folk songs and dances. Young Zula (Joanna Kulig) makes quite an impression on Wiktor when she auditions. He sees in her a certain quality that goes beyond a good voice. Irena has a pretty good idea what he sees. They soon become lovers.
The word is that Zula was in prison for killing her father and is now out with a suspended sentence. When Wiktor asks what happened, she tells him her father mistook her for her mother and she used a knife to show him the difference. Don't worry, she says. He didn't die.
Complications ensue when a party functionary pressures the troupe to incorporate a tribute to the great socialist leader Stalin into their act. Irena objects that they perform traditional folk music. Wiktor does not like the proposal but remains silent. They are undermined by Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc), the troupe's manager and an obsequious little weasel, who assures the functionary that of course they can perform a paean to Stalin and socialist principles.
Complications further ensue and with them a minor tempest that portends storms to come when Zula confesses to Wiktor that she is ratting him out to Kaczmarek, who is using her vulnerable status to pressure her for dirt on Wiktor. And, no surprise, Kaczmarek is hitting on her.
At first Zula comes off as poised, confident, not above being a little manipulative. Over time her insecurities surface and with them come jealousy and impulsive words and acts that cannot lead to a good end. She is fragile is ways not readily apparent early on. Maybe she sees herself as a peasant girl who does not measure up in more sophisticated settings where fate will carry her. Foolish moves follow one after another.
In a somewhat different fashion Wiktor comes to the same end. He is phlegmatic, solid, yet no less capable of feeling deeply than she, and no less subject to passion that knows nothing of reason.
Wiktor and Zula are separated when an escape to the West does not go as planned. In a powerful sequence then had me leaning forward in my seat, almost forgetting to breath, Wiktor waits for Zula near the checkpoint in East Berlin while she dithers indecisively at a reception after a performance until at last he gives up on her and trudges alone down the grim street in snow and darkness to cross over to the West. Years later she will tell him that she would not have left without him.
Affairs, marriage, chance encounters, the resumption of their affair, separation again. By turns they are shattered as love runs up against dreary and grim realities, constricted freedom, limits of possibility, in the Poland of that era. How realistic are their choices and actions? Does it matter?
The actors are as superb as the director. Joanna Kulig's Zula is a mix of coolness and desperation, a tough cookie and a vulnerable, almost brittle girl who took me with her as she careened to the edge. Tomasz Kot does much the same in a different fashion as Wiktor. He is in control until he is not. However doomed they are together, neither can walk away from the other for good.
Agata Kluesza always brings something to a film even in a minor role. Irena is the conscience of the troupe, resisting pressure to subvert their artistic vision by allowing the troupe to become a vehicle for propaganda, while Wiktor follows a path of least resistance for which there is almost sure to be a cost down the road.
Kluesza was magnificent in a meatier role as Ida's Aunt Wanda, a famous prosecutor known as Red Wanda in the early 1950s when she presided over show trials where the defendants were executed, by the end of the decade a lonely, bitter woman who looks to alcohol and loveless, one-night stands for solace. She played the abbess in Les Innocentes (The Innocents), another fine film, in which Kulig also had a role.
Kulig, Kluesza, and Kot will draw me to any film in which they appear. Pawlikowski will draw me to any film he makes. After watching Cold War it occurs to me that we are living in a time of some remarkable filmmakers. Will people some day think of Pawlikowski and Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) as I think of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini? I come close today.