(2018) Romance (Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cėdric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Woronowicz, Adam Ferency, Drazen Slivak, Slavko Sobin, Aloise Sauvage, Adam Szyszkowski, Anna Zagórska, Tomasz Markowicz, Izabela Andrzejak, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Clemniejewska, Joanna Depczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski
We like to think of love as a redemptive, enhancing feeling that makes us better people. Love can also be toxic, blinding us to that which can destroy us and leave us bitter and broken. Love is two sides of the same coin and when you throw a repressive regime that discourages individuality into the mix, love can be all but impossible.
In 1949, Poland like all of Europe is digging itself out of the rubble of World War II. Now under communist control, the government has sent Wiktor (Kot), a pianist/composer/arranger out into the countryside along with dance instructor Irena (Kulesza) and driver Kaczmarek (Szyc) to seek out the songs and singers of traditional Polish folk music, something like the Folkways project that the Smithsonian undertook during the Depression. A school/troupe of singers and dancers of traditional Polish folk songs and dances is being put together and Wiktor and Irena are tasked with selecting the songs and dances as well as the artists who will perform them.
One woman in particular catches the eye of Wiktor; Zula (Kulig), a brassy, effervescent sort who has a criminal record and all sorts of stories to explain it. She’s beautiful in a kind of Pia Zadora/Bridget Bardot kind of way and certainly sensual; it isn’t long before she and Wiktor are having a torrid affair, one that threatens to consume them both.
As the 1940s ease into the 1950s, there is a subtle change in the mission of the troupe. No longer content to save and extol Poland’s musical and artistic past, naked propaganda has begun to work its way into the program, songs praising Stalin and communism in general. Wiktor wants none of it. He was content to save music that might have been lost but he is not one who follows any party line and he is determined to pack up his toys and depart that particular sandbox.
But Zula has been passing on information about Wiktor to Kaczmarek who has become a minor commissar who is rising up in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee the communist bloc with him when they are performing a concert in Berlin shortly before the Wall was erected. However, she doesn’t show at their planned rendezvous and bitterly disappointed, he steps into the West, never for one moment forgetting what he left behind in the East.
The film follows them through their tempestuous romance over the next 15 years, the height of the cold war. Pawlikowski based the couple on his own parents who had a stormy relationship of their own, although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go down quite the same path as Wiktor and Zula go. Both of them are scarred by the times but mostly by each other. Wiktor becomes weak, directionless and obsessed with the love he lost; he ends up in Paris, playing with a jazz combo and scoring films. Zula, volatile and occasionally cruel, gets married but still loves Wiktor even though she knows any sort of relationship with him is doomed to fail. Love, sometimes, isn’t enough and this movie certainly makes that point. Wiktor and Zula clearly love each other deeply but they are fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. The Iron Curtain will end up crushing them both.
The performances here are strong, particularly Kulig who is one of Poland’s most popular actresses and a dynamite singer in her own right. There’s a scene late in the movie where Zula is performing in a nightclub revue in the mid-60s that is absolutely horrible by our standards today. She knows what she has been reduced to. Onstage she’s all smiles and even the presence of her lover doesn’t overcome her own revulsion of what she’s become; she runs offstage past her husband, son and yes Wiktor too and vomits. It’s powerful and resonant all at once.
Pawlikowski is best-known for his Oscar-nominated Ida and what was excellent about that film is present in his latest one. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal who did that film (as well as the brilliant Loving Vincent) is in gorgeous black and white, often accompanied by a smoky jazz score. Speaking of the score, the folk music both of the troupe and that which Wiktor and Irena find in the sticks is absolutely gorgeous and while I’m less impressed with the more modern jazzy takes of the music, this is regardless a soundtrack worth seeking out.
Powerful and tragic, this is a movie that spends a lot of time getting started – the early scenes at the Palace which is the headquarters for the troupe become overbearing as we watch the girls practice dancing and singing endlessly and as Wiktor and Zula’s love begins to blossom, we sense that this is a relationship that is not built for longevity but that’s not because of the depth of their love or lack thereof but sadly, about the times they are in. It’s still playing at a few scattered theaters across the country (including right here in Orlando at the Enzian) but will be making its home video debut shortly, although if it should do well at the Oscars that might change. I suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can – you’ll want to enjoy the cinematography the way it was meant to be enjoyed.
REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is breathtaking. The folk music is hauntingly beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third drags a little too much – all the training sequences could easily have been excised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, brief nudity, profanity and some mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cold War has been nominated for three Oscars this year; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The English Patient
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Golem