Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 09, 2018 12:27 pm 
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Love and war

From the acclaimed director of the very fine 2013 Ida and similarly focused on Iron Curtain love and shot in crisp, beautiful black and white, a story people are finding even bleaker than its predecessor. A passionate love story between two people of different backgrounds and temperaments, who are fatefully mismatched, set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris. In Competition at Cannes, it won the Best Director award there and was a Palme d'Or nominee.

A visual dazzler that is also so packed with music you could call it a musical. It's in academy ratio, and a marvelous economy that impresses in this ear of overblown movies that go soft. The man, Viktor (Tomasz Kot) is a conductor, the girl, Zula (Joanna Kulig) is a promising young singer he takes a liking to at her first interview. This is also a portrait of Polish Iron Curtain folk music propaganda. The group we follow around is powerful nativist propaganda. The artistic leaders resist the bureaucrats' request that they introduce political, pro-Stalin songs into the touring show. They lose.

Pawlikowski works in bold units jumping forward in time, like dealing out cards from a deck. Some of the earliest shots are so beautiful and rich in tonalities they're like stills. And the final shot is one of the most beautiful of all, and the darkest and saddest. Along the way, the precise recreation of period and costumes would seem mannerist if the scenes were not so deft and powerful. Many shots of groups of men look like photos of Soviet-era crowds down to the last button. But the music is nearly as powerful an impression as the image, if not more so.

There are various types of real and pseudo slavic film music and cold war propaganda ditties, and there is jazz, and French chansons, rock and roll, and the final credits roll over Bach's GoldBerg Variations. The lustiness and power of a cappella singing in the early sequences is overwhelming. It grabs you by the throat. It's hypnotic. And a little comical.

The action hinges on defection. Viktor and Zula are having a mad affair, and the group they're in is so successful it's getting plum tour assignments. When they're in Berlin he proposes that they go over to the western side, and he argues her into agreeing. But when the evening comes, he waits for hours with suitcase and cigarette and she does not come.

And so the mad affair ends. Only it doesn't. But there is a gradual understanding that they can never be happy, either in their lives, or with each other. He goes to Paris, and becomes involved with a French woman poet, Juliette, played by Jeanne Balibar (I half expected her to be the singer Barbara, whom she played so well in Mathieu Amalric's recent film). Zula eventually comes to Paris. She has her own man now. But it's understood that she and Vikor must reunite, and they do. But Zula finds fault with Juliette's poetry, which Viktor wants to use in an album Zula will make in Paris. (She sings it anyway.) She thows away the album as "trash."

Zula thinks Viktor in Paris is no longer a man. They live in a large loft with a big mansard roof, classic. One of the almost nonstop arresting sequences - they are arguably so numerous they overwhelm the film and make it more like a pageant - is at a club where Bill Haley and the Comets' "Rock around the Clock" plays at top volume and Zula dances with multiple partners, while Viktor sits impassively by. Yet another style of music, coming right after pseudo Mexican, and another arresting scene of virtuoso intensity.

Viktor cares so much for her he is willing to go back to Poland, where he is found guilty of multiple crimes and goes to jail sentenced to fifteen years. But strings are pulled and he gets out. Then, they go to Greece, and to the other side. What will Pawilikowski do next? One wonders.

Tomasz Kot might be ordinary looking except that he's so tall. He never droops, despite Zula's occasional disapproval. Joanna Kulig is the star, a variable woman who can look beat up and exhausted one moment and dazzling and beautiful the next. One expects surprises from her after her first appearance. She projects triumph and insecurity in equal measure, a troubling presence. With her one enters a world of the dangerous and unpredictable. A world of the Cold War era Pawlikowski has made his own, at least for now. Pawlikowski certainly knows how to make movies. At the NYFF Q&A with Kulig, speaking perfect English, he seemed almost matter of fact.

Cold War, 88 mins., debuted as mentioned at Cannes and won the Best Director award. AT least 30 other festivals are listed on IMDb, including Toronto and the New York Film Festival, screened at the latter for this review. The US theatrical release is scheduled for 21 Dec. 2018. Metascore 90.

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