Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski rakes in three Oscar noms with "Cold War."
It's post-WWII, and music director Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) travels the Polish countryside recording folk songs from the locals. (Each song foreshadows ill-fated love and caste separation.) Holding auditions for a musical production, he meets Zula (Joanna Kulig), who sings a haunting tune about the heart.
They fall for each other, but soon, the production's hijacked for propaganda purposes a la the government. Their love stretches across decades in Poland, France, Yugoslavia after the two plan an illegal escape.
"Cold War" is shot in razor-sharp and expressive black and white. The visuals here by Pawlikowski and cinematographer Lukasz Zal (stunner "Loving Vincent") are a piece of art in themselves. There are meticulously framed subjects in crowded shots of collaborative energy, and sweeping wide shots that ham up a felt isolation.
Kot as Wiktor elicits a visceral burning with his eyes as he regards Zula, take after take, passion across his brow. It's smoldering, sexy and believable. Kot also paints an external composure and scattered confusion with skill.
Kulig (who's twinning with Jennifer Lawrence) portrays Zula as a talented, sultry and impassioned woman with a past. Kulig is a delight throughout "Cold War," communicating fatigue and the twists and turns of tortured emotions.
In one scene, Kulig is pig-tailed and chipper during the ensemble's performance. She catches the eye of Wiktor, whom she hasn't seen in years. As the show goes on, you see her spirit deflate like that of a pierced balloon.
Supporting player Agata Kulesza as Witkor's producer Irena is great in a minor role, speaking up for the creative vision and realism of the country. (Kulesza starred in Pawlikowski's 2015 Oscar-winner "Ida.")
Borys Szyc is solid as Kaczmarek, whom you want to write off as a stooge; but in him, there are hints at a disconnection to one's roots - a theme that runs throughout.
The script by Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki and Piotr Borkowski plays up a certain nostalgia for the pastoral in gaping and detail shots of a run-down countryside cathedral, in how nature is romanticized and equalizing.
And this film has personal ties, based on the director's parents, (their names are Wiktor and Zula IRL), who had a 40-year tumultuous relationship.
"Cold War" flashes forward at peak moments, and while that's OK artistically - we can fill in the blanks - these feel like missed opportunities for character and story development.
Seeing more of their foundation as people and as a couple would better illuminate their sacrifices and an emotional connection with them.
It's also a testament to the performances that you want more.
Pawlikowski is the most beautiful storyteller, grasping you with everything he's got through potent visuals and universal themes of identity, love, culture. "Cold War" is no exception.
Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Writers: Pawel Pawlikowski, Janusz Glowacki, Piotr Borkowski
Rating: R for some sexual content, nudity and language
Opening Friday at Zinema 2