As Hollywood awaits the annual presentation of the Academy Awards, two lushly photographed black-and-white foreign-language films have steadily found themselves in competition: Alfonso Cuaron's "Roma" and Pawel Pawlikowski's "Cold War," which picked up three Oscar nominations this week for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Cinematography and a surprise nod for Best Director. And now, as "Cold War" rolls out in theaters across the country, those wondering how the Polish would do "La La Land" have their chance to see for themselves.
I'm kidding, sort of, but "Cold War" is a romantic epic of a troubled couple blessed with musical talent. In battered post-war Poland, a representative (Tomasz Kot) of a folkloric ensemble makes field recordings of folk music, the film beginning with a song of a man pleading a woman to let him in. Borders and walls and fences and closed doors and what's on the other sides serve as metaphors for the film's problematic central relationship between Kot's musical director/pianist Wiktor and his new discovery, a beguiling singer named Zuzanna, or "Zula" (Joanna Kulig), who's not incidentally a survivor of domestic trauma.
Unfolding between 1949 and 1964, Pawlikowski's screenplay tracks the on-and-off couple as a pair and as individuals separated by forces larger than themselves, taking placeholder mates but ever feeling a pull toward unavailable soul mates. The lovers' endless frustrations, only worsened by sociopolitical and vocational ambitions and obligations and choices, manifest in cruel gestures and devastating arguments. There's undeniable heat between the two, a flame that won't die but also leaves painful burns. In a typically bitter exchange, Zula successfully gets a rise out of Wiktor, who hits her. "Now we're talking," she answers.
A sweet romance this isn't, but Pawlikowski ("Ida") balances the flatfooted realities of maddeningly thwarted love with swoony moments: smoky jazz clubs and songbird reveries. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal's lush chiaroscuro photography proves equally assured in a sunny field or shadowy streets, while Pawlikowski draws upon his documentary background to lend the black and white aesthetic an uneasy realism. He also judiciously places musical touchstones for maximal sensuality and thematic winking: a bar dance to "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby" and another, with drunken abandon, to "Rock Around the Clock."
"Cold War" is at its most fascinating when politics directly disrupt the characters' passions or they must navigate the detritus of recent global events from standpoints in Poland, Germany, Yugoslavia, or France. Wiktor and Zula both suffer artistic compromises that sting as much as their romantic travails, usually at the behest of Communist Party bureaucrats (as concerns folk music, for example, they'd prefer songs about land reform and the leadership, thank you very much).
All of the above help to keep "Cold War" engaging despite a plot and characters that some will find as repellently chilly as they are credible. One doesn't have to like Wiktor and Zula to sympathize with them, but at times the low-key performances and austere script weaken the film's momentum and capacity for an empathetic connection. "Cold War" is a love story that turns bitter early and often, and is rewarding for those hardy enough to handle it.