A master's stroke

Rating: 5

Cold War

by Jason Solomons

Any list of the great love affairs boasts Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Héloïse, Romeo and Juliet, Lancelot and Guinevere, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. On the silver screen, we’ve embraced pairs such as Rick and Ilsa, Laura and Dr Alex, Jules and Jim, Alvy Singer and Annie Hall, or even the before trilogy’s Jesse and Celine, as played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.

But now the names of Wiktor and Zula must surely be added to that company. They are the tortured, passionate lovers of Cold War, the new film from Oscar-winning polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, a black and white masterpiece that achieved ‘instant classic’ status the moment it premiered to an enraptured reception at Cannes last may, where it earned Pawlikowski the Best Director prize.

Pawlikowski was born in Poland but made his reputation here in Britain with such prickly love stories as Last Resort (2000) and My Summer of Love, which discovered the actress Emily Blunt in 2004. He earned his Oscar for the polish film Ida in 2016, but he’s never made anything quite like Cold War.

It’s gorgeous, clever, moving, sexy, cool and heartbreaking, an affair that spans 20 or so years, starting just after the end of the Second World War in Poland, when a team of musicians from Warsaw are scouring the countryside looking for folk singers and getting a group together, a sort of Poland's Got talent, designed to restore nationalistic pride to the war-ravaged nation.

Wiktor, the stubbly, weary orchestra leader, spots a blonde singer, Zula, whom he singles out as a potential star, but really he falls in love with her. As the group grows in renown, the Polish government sends them on a propaganda tour of communist countries, and Wiktor and Zula plan to defect after a concert in East Berlin and elope to Paris.

What follows is a film about exile, longing, love and music. There’s humour and pain amid wonderfully atmospheric photography that conveys both the romance and the anguish of their love affair. Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) wanders the jazz clubs and smoky cafés of Paris; Zula becomes a big star, as should the actress who plays her, Joanna Kulig.

As the unromantic title, Cold War, suggests, politics do come into it, and certainly, the sacrifices, hardships and, yes, even the idealistic romance of Communism are channelled through the turbulence of Wiktor and Zula's love.

It’s such an exquisitely crafted little piece that I wouldn’t want to spoil its charms and tragedies, though I’m sure the mysterious ending will frustrate as many viewers as it enchants. but along the way there are so many moments to enjoy, such as a dance scene set to Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock all shot in one, serpentine take of Zula abandoning herself to the jitterbug while Wiktor watches on, spellbound like the rest of us.

I loved the film and we’ll surely be talking about it for months to come – if it doesn’t win awards, I’ll be shocked. It has the poise and style of the best European movies from the 1950s and ’60s, but the searing power of the emotions and performances bring it painfully into the present, to sparkle anew.

Cold War is a complex, beautiful love story, sometimes as severe as it is sexy, and far too smart – or hurt – to trumpet the romantic notion that true love will conquer all. that stuff is only for the old movies.