There can be no prizes for guessing the historical milieu of Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” a transfixing miniature that evokes the eponymous midcentury geopolitical freeze with all the intricate, delicate decay of the Polish auteur’s Oscar-winning “Ida.” But the cold war at the center of this restless, ellipsis-filled film is one between hearts, not territories: Skipping with swift agility across European borders and a 15-year timeframe, Pawlikowski sketches an intense long-term love affair between two mismatched Polish musicians whose relationship is defined less by affection than a mutual, mistrustful, latently violent hostility. Loosely inspired by the tempestuous marriage of the director’s late parents — for whom the principals are named, and to whom the film is mournfully dedicated — “Cold War” may return to “Ida’s” meticulous monochrome aesthetic of “Ida,” but it’s a companion piece with its own tonal and structural energy: less emotionally immediate, perhaps, but immersively informed by the broken jazz rhythms beloved of its protagonist.
Amazon Studios has already secured U.S. rights to “Cold War,” the fine finish of which (combined with Pawlikowski’s post-“Ida” profile boost, sealed here by his first Cannes competition placement) should secure it plum arthouse slots across the globe. If it’s unlikely to match “Ida’s” extraordinary crossover box office, it’s also not a film that’s overtly courts its audience. Pawlikowski makes viewers work to fill deliberate, loaded gaps in his storytelling, while it takes some time for the relative glassiness of its beautiful, troubled onscreen lovers (played with gradually marked wear and tear by Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig) to crack — showing the resonance in their, well, coldness.
It takes some time, in fact, for the film to reveal itself as a two-hander at all, as its opening reels promise more of a folk patchwork — in multiple ways, as we open directly on a village band’s strident, ragged rendition of a plaintive traditional song. “Open up, my love, for fear of God,” they warble, anticipating unrelated romantic desperation to come. The year is 1949, and the performance, delivered bluntly to camera in cramped Academy ratio (another visual carry-over from Pawlikowski’s last film), turns out to be for the benefit of Wiktor (Kot) and Irena (Agata Kulesza, wonderfully salty), jaded musical directors talent-scouting for a theatrical folk ensemble. Based on the real-life Mazowske troupe, founded in the wake of World War II and still performing today, the intent behind the act is to celebrate regional culture, packaging and polishing rural talent for international stages.
Wiktor, however, is less interested in championing indigenous artistry than in finding a star: An urbane pianist with a passion for jazz, his eyes light up when electric blonde chanteuse Zula (Kulig) enters the audition room. She’s plainly not the backwater ingenue she claims to be, and seems about as authentic singing folk music as Britney doing bluegrass, but her talent and charisma are undeniable; within two years, she’s lighting up the ensemble to packed houses across Europe, and having a torrid if not fully candid affair with Wiktor. When the troupe’s career-minded manager Kaczmarek (Borys Szyc) effectively sells out to the Soviets, retooling the show as a Stalinist propaganda act, Wiktor bails, while the more ideologically complacent Zula stays on.
That’s merely the first boy-loses-girl stage in a love story that drifts across the Continent as loosely and erratically as the characters drift through their own lives, buffeted alternately by political circumstance and personal impetuosity. The narrative chronology may be linear, often leaping across several years in a single cut, but as Wiktor and Zula reunite and separate multiple times over the course of a decade, time effectively seems to stall and loop: Lost both with and without each other, neither one seems able to progress with their relationship in perennial, cyclical limbo. (Special credit to editor Jarosław Kamiński, for shaping such a cumulative tangle of incident and suggestion into such an airy 88 minutes.) Wiktor, winding up a bedraggled jazzman at a Paris nightclub, listens to Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t Baby,” and it’s the rare case of an on-the-nose song choice speaking perfectly for a character. As long as the question remains unanswered, the cold war between the two persists; any détente can only be bittersweet.
As Scorsese’s “New York, New York” and even the recent “La La Land” showed us, jazz-playing lovers are cool to the last, in all senses. If it’s initially difficult to invest emotionally in Wiktor and Zula’s relationship, that’s because they have similar trouble themselves — it’s as we see how difficult it is for these two artists to give themselves to each other that we begin to ache for them. (“Believe in yourself,” he implores her. “I do — it’s you I don’t believe in,” comes the pithy, telling reply.) If Kot is the film’s elegant, temperate anchor, Kulig is its wildly swinging pendulum: Wholly riveting to watch, she rifles through moods and attitudes with the casual magnetism of a young Jeanne Moreau, or even a Euro Jennifer Lawrence. In one extraordinary, fast-whirling centerpiece, she furiously dances out her frustrations to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” — another pointed, biting soundtrack cue, its nascent rock ‘n’ roll beat pointing to a future in which Wiktor’s jazz sensibility may not survive.
The lovingly handpicked soundtrack, ranging from darkly mesmerizing folk curiosities to torchy blues standards to a climactic, ethereal wave of Glenn Gould-interpreted Bach, is perhaps the most invaluable below-the-line contribution to a film crafted with almost eerie exactitude across the board. Working once more with “Ida” cinematographer Łukasz Żal, Pawlikowski risks accusations of self-repetition with his finely wrought black-and-white compositions, each frame an exquisite tile of milk-and-malt melancholy. Yet the emotional effect of that mise en scène is quite different here, as the characters chafe against this visual purity; the contrast in the image intensifies as their fragile relationship darkens and rots. Like “Ida,” however, “Cold War” is a soberly moving study of the disappointment and insecurity that can blossom from supposed renewal: It’s a romance in which new beginnings and endings can be hard to tell apart.