Review: Oscar-nominated COLD WAR

By Josh Muchly

Upshot: Two artists, Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor ( Tomasz Kot) fall in love in communist Poland post-WWII. However, their yearning for one another, their artistic endeavors and, indeed, their very survival keep them from a lasting union even as their fates continue to intertwine.

Rundown: Though the most talked-about foreign film in this awards season is Netflix’s ROMA, it is not an isolated piece of great cinema. There are some similarities between the Oscar favorite and Pawel Pawlikowski’s tribute to his parents, but while ROMA challenges modern politics along with staples of film production and exhibition, COLD WAR challenges storytelling tropes.

For example, COLD WAR is a love story, no question; but, it’s also an unromance: the longer our protagonists fail to be united, and the more life scars them, the less happiness they’ll ever find — apart or not — and the fewer chances they’ll have to be together. Their romantic feats leave lasting effects on them, wearing them down physically and psychologically. 

Paris acts as both host of and participant in the unromance. The city is idealized by our protagonists as the City of Love and a place where can art can flourish, but is actualized as their city of empty fantasies and cowardice; it is no more a promised land than Lodz, especially in the backdrop of the devastation of the Second Great War.

The audience would benefit from a thorough knowledge of Europe’s history in the 1940s and early 1950s, but it is no way required (thank goodness). Suffice it say, World War II is over and the Rebuilding of Poland has begun. It’s a time when people are suspicious of their fellow citizens and art is manipulated into triumphant propaganda. What does an artist do when her talents are used as tools by the elite and the powerful (justifiably or not)? stay silent? flee? How does someone act when their soulmate is faced with such difficult choices? This is exactly the situation in which our lovers find themselves…

Though originally meant to be shot in color, the black and white photography ends up reinforcing both the context and this unromance. As if to say, “Color itself, like love or art, is a privilege not for the damned.”

Highpoint: the river-ride in Paris; during a poetic calm before the storm of tragedy, Zura and Wiktor spend a brief period of bliss together, holding each other while floating down the Seine, their gaze acting as a projector, displaying Paris the way it is usually imagined.

Lowpoint: Zula is sometimes portrayed too erratically. We are (seemingly) supposed to just accept her as someone who just goes nutty on-occasion, and not wonder why.  This doesn’t occur frequently, but it happens enough to question why we don’t understand Zula as much as we’d like to. Perhaps she has emotional damage from her experiences in the War? Perhaps something else is torturing her? We don’t know.

Rating: 6/ 7

Postscript: This film, nominated for Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film, will be available to stream from Amazon Prime on March 22.


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