It's an odd feeling watching a filmmaker reach for a thematic complexity he can't quite wrap his arms around. On the one hand, there should always be incentives for artists to think big and not play it safe; on the other hand, the degree of difficulty can't be the only criterion for creative success. In Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski seems interested in nothing less than distilling the Soviet Bloc era of Polish history into one messy romantic relationship—and he sometimes seems so compelled by the broad strokes of his idea that he forgets to shade in the details.
The narrative opens in 1949 as the Communist government of Poland begins putting together a troupe of singers and dancers to celebrate the authentic folk music of the common people. The company's artistic director, Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), immediately becomes intrigued with one particular auditioner, Zula Licho (Joanna Kulig), whose talent is matched by her determination. The two soon begin an affair, but their plans to make a life together are complicated fairly immediately by the politics of their time.
"Fairly immediately" describes the way nearly everything happens in Cold War. The story ultimately spans 15 years, moving back and forth between both sides of the Iron Curtain, over the space of only 89 minutes. That kind of ruthless narrative efficiency is a trademark of Pawlikowski's—none of his features have ever topped 90 minutes, including his 2014 foreign-language film Oscar-winner Ida—which makes him unique in an era when sheer tonnage of running time is equated with seriousness. Yet there are times when the breakneck pacing leaves gaps in the central relationship. In a sense, the shallow intensity of the connection between Wiktor and Zula feels like part of the point, but it should still be important to show two people who aren't meant for one another, tragically divided by the whirlwind of history.
It's fortunate, then, that Cold War has two other terrific things going for it. One of them is the look of the film, shot in stunning black-and-white by Pawlikowski's Oscar-nominated Ida cinematographer Lukasz Zal. There's a rich texture to every image, accentuated by Pawlikowski's decision to consistently frame his characters under a lot of empty space, making it feel as though they're being pinched into the bottom of their own lives. Individual shots are some of the most striking compositions of the year, whether it's Zula floating in a lake where the silvery water makes it look like she's suspended in mercury, or a party where a mirrored wall only gradually makes it evident that we're watching Wiktor and Zula unable to stop staring at one another.
The other terrific thing is Kulig, a veteran actress of (mostly) Polish films who somehow feels like a pure discovery here. It's not just her look, though it is fascinating—turn her head this way, and she's a dead ringer for Jennifer Lawrence, making it easy to imagine an English-language remake; tip her chin just so, and suddenly she's a young Liv Ullmann. But even more striking is the ferocious survival instinct she brings to Zula, evident from the early moments when she understands what she has to do to make the cut for the troupe, and the matter-of-fact way she describes responding to sexual violence at the hands of her father. The incandescence of her performance unbalances the dynamic between Zula and Wiktor—it's always considerably clearer what he sees in her than vice-versa—but makes Cold War consistently intriguing to watch.
That still leaves the question of what Pawlikowski is trying to convey about the period in which this story is set, and it's clear that the key is somewhere in the way he uses music. There's the initial compromise by the troupe in agreeing to include blatantly pro-Stalin songs in its repertoire at the "suggestion" of a government official, and the later attempt to translate one of Zula's signature folk tunes into a sexy torch song. Wiktor and Zula keep getting further and further from their heritage as they attempt to cling to one another, right up to a final snippet of dialogue that's almost aggressive in its double meaning. Aesthetically, it's easy to embrace Cold War. The things going on beneath its beautiful surface remain a bit more elusive.