In 2015, back when he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida, Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski played chicken with the Academy orchestra. He was at the microphone for his acceptance speech for less than sixty seconds when they started to play him off—but, full of good spirit, he spoke over the music and kept on thanking. The orchestra music climbed higher and higher until it had nowhere else to go. With an audible sense of confusion, the musicians stopped playing completely. The audience laughed. The Academy’s bluff had been called. Pawlikowski finished his thank you’s, saving his family for last, and made a triumphant exit.
Having seen his new film, Cold War, that acceptance speech is still my favorite thing he’s done.
While Ida was (and is) celebrated, I remained a tepid non-fan. I chalked up its success with the Academy to it fitting the platonic ideal of what too many people think an “art film” is—a platonic ideal that’s 50 years old by now, and that Ida didn’t transcend. It had a stately topic and looked beautiful, but what it had to say felt undistinguished, and its choice to frame every lovely image off-center was more an affectation than a meaningful style.
Cold War, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes and opened in the US this month, continues with most of the same virtues and vices, even though it is the more thematically interesting film. It tells a love story criss-crossing the Iron Curtain, as two Polish musicians (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot) move back and forth between the East and the West during the Stalin era. In the Soviet bloc, they’re subject to censorship and violent bureaucratic insanity. Abroad, they are people without a true home. He feels unsatisfied with his lower place on the cultural ladder. She chafes at being seen as exotic by condescending Westerners. And so they search for some place and some way to be happy together. The film drops in and out of their lives, jumping ahead years between scenes, with each point in space and time marked by a different style of musical performance.
It is a fine structural conceit, but the result is curiously arid. She is “the woman of my life”, the hero insists, though the film captures neither the expression of passion nor the pain of it being held in. As the two lovers argue, split, and come together, embracing in the street in crisp black and white, they so often register less as desperately emotional beings and more like models in a high-end glossy magazine ad. (An ad for what? Maybe cologne, or perfume, or a fashion line—in high-end ads, they don’t even have to show the product). Part of this thinness may have to do with length. Cold War aims to span decades and phases of life in under 90 minutes. And while master impressionists can and have flipped through time with both historical acumen and emotional pain, Pawlikowski’s execution feels like holes of causality have been punched out. Just to be strict but fair, I set it alongside other Cannes-feted, critically-raved films that cover similar territory, like The Double Life of Veronique and Nostalghia—and Cold War looks all the more cursory and prosaic by comparison.
This is not, however, to say that Cold War is entirely unrewarding for arthouse hangers-on, but rather that its rewards almost entirely skim the surface: a resonant historical setting, immediate melodrama, literal metaphors, and pictorial beauty. The main exception is Joanna Kulig’s wonderful performance itself. She dredges up what’s unspoken in her character, and only a fool could deny a moment as exquisite as Kulig’s lonely, jaded heroine whipping her hair to rockabilly to try and squeeze every bit of consolation out of freedom that she can. But now that Cold War is short-listed for another Best Foreign Film Oscar, I can’t help but wonder why such definitions of “cinematic art” can’t be richer or more daring. And why movies about the trauma of the past arrive here with hype that smells vaguely like nostalgia.
Cold War is open in select arthouses, with more to come. In case you’re curious about that Oscar speech, here it is.