Successful man discovers talented girl. They fall madly in love. Her star rises. His falls. You leave the film humming a song that stays in your head forever. The end.
If you recognize that as the plot of 2018’s A Star Is Born, the fourth iteration of the Hollywood classic starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, you are correct. But it’s also the the guiding narrative of another awards season favorite, the gorgeous Polish-language film Cold War, which is primed and ready to fill that “Shallow” hole in your heart when it hits theaters December 21.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s film is set against the backdrop of European post-war politics pitting the communist East against the capitalist West. But it’s ultimately a story about music, and love, and the price one has to pay to enjoy both. In that sense, there are clear parallels to A Star Is Born. But though the comparison is so, so tempting (Polish folk song “Dwa Serduszka”, the film’s main anthem, might not roll off the tongue as easily as “Hair Body Face,” but whatever, “oyoyoooooooye”) it is a little unfair. Cold War is very much its own movie — and what a movie! You might as well be comparing a backseat swig of gin to an ice cold martini.
Loosely inspired by Pawlikowski’s parents, Cold War tells the story of Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot). The two meet when she auditions for the Mazurek Ensemble, a group formed in the late 1940s to promote traditional Polish folk music and dance, which he conducts. Their attraction is palpable (seriously — it jumps off the screen) from the start, and the two soon embark on a smoking hot love affair that will take them from the bleak, cold landscapes of 1950s and 60s Poland to the burgeoning bohemian arts scene of Paris, and back again.
Lukasz Zal’s cinematography — filmed entirely in black and white — is sumptuous, heightening the interplay of shadow and light in a way that makes every frame worthy of analysis and dissection. One scene in particular, which shows a newly reunited Wiktor and Zula taking a nighttime cruise down the Seine, is likely to send shivers down your spine.
Kulig and Kot are both exceptionally gifted actors, conveying worlds of emotion with a glance, a caress, or a shrug. Still, as befits the Star is Born trope, hers is the breakout performance. Kulig plays Zula close to the vest — like Wiktor, we’re never allowed to truly know what drives her. She’s funny, infectiously charismatic, and most of all, pragmatic, able to croon out a jazz tune in a smoke-filled room as easily as she can play the part of the wholesome milkmaid. But underneath that calm, impassive veneer lies a well of self-loathing, doubt and resentment. She loves Wiktor but wants more, needs more.
It’s rare to see a love story built on two such complex individuals, each with their own desires and flaws. One story isn’t in service to the other. Rather, they move in tandem, a choreographed dance that brings them together, and pulls them apart, only to jerk back, like magnets.
It’s no surprise, then, that Cold War has been garnering critical and awards buzz. Pawlikowski won Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film premiered back in May, and the film has gone on to be named Best Foreign-Language Film by the National Board of Review and the New York Critics’ Circle, and earned nominations from the Critics Choice Awards, the Satellite Awards, and the British Independent Film Awards. It’s also Poland’s entry for Best Foreign-Language Film at the 2019 Oscars, and many consider it a front-runner. (Pawlikowski won the Oscar back in 2015 for his film, Ida, in which Kulig also appeared.)
In an exclusive clip from the film below, you can watch Zula and Wiktor’s explosive chemistry unfurl in real time. Having just learned that Zula did some time in prison for a violent act against her father, Wiktor confronts her about it during a rehearsal. “He mistook me for my mother, so I used a knife to show him the difference,” she deadpans. “He didn’t die, don’t worry.”
It’s that kind of blunt, hilarious response that makes Zula so compelling. She leans into her impulses, good or bad, without hesitation. And like, Wiktor, you’ll be hooked.