If you’ve ever been stuck hundreds of miles from the love of your life, wondering if it’s really worth all the heartache and phone-checking, Pawel Pawlikowski has made the movie for you. With a monochrome love story spanning two decades and four countries in post-war Europe, the Polish filmmaker has conjured a dazzling, painful, universal odyssey through the human heart and all its strange compulsions. It could be the most achingly romantic film you’ll see this year, or just a really painful reminder of the one that got away.
Beginning in 1949, twentysomething singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) and middle-aged pianist Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) meet in the least auspicious of settings – an austere Polish musical academy that could easily double as a prison. Wiktor is charged with assembling a troupe of folk musicians to extol the greatness of the motherland, but he’s had his fill of songs about agricultural reform and the global proletariat. Zula’s defiant spirit catches his eye, they fall for each other and he promises her a new life on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But when he defects to Paris, she surprises him by staying behind, setting in motion a 20-year love affair that plays out like a swinging ’60s version of ‘Doctor Zhivago’.
Chemistry is not in short supply between the two. There’s an age gap – that hoary old bugbear – but Pawlikowski semi-subverts it by making Wiktor the more lovelorn of the couple. They meet and part on Parisian boulevards, in smoky jazz clubs and at concerts in Yugoslavia, but Zula is a firework he can barely cling on to. She has dreams of stardom as a musician back home that he can only hamper. Whatever it is that keeps drawing them back together, it’s not good sense.
Both actors are terrific – Kulig, in particular, is a real discovery; she brings the brassy confidence of a fully fledged film star to every scene. The other star is behind the camera: Pawlikowski has added another seriously impressive calling card to his CV. As with his last film, ‘Ida’, he frames ‘Cold War’ in the Academy ratio, a boxy throwback to a bygone cinematic era that acts like a time machine. When Kulig sways on to a Parisian nightclub dancefloor to swirl drunkenly to Bill Haley & His Comets, you could almost be in a 1964 cinema, watching Anna Karina dancing in ‘Bande à Part’. It’s one of the most colourful things you’ll ever see in black and white.