By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The title – “Cold War”– reflects the 15-year-long stalemate between its protagonists. That said, their romance blows both hot and cold.
This expertly done, bleakly ironic film, shot in luminous black-and-white by Pawel Pawlikowski, the director of the art-house hit, “Ida,” follows a love affair from its irreverent beginning to its eerie end.
Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and Zula (Joanna Kulig) meet when she’s just a teenager a cuter-than-cute little blonde who cheats her way into an audition for a folk-singing troupe.
The year is 1949 and as the ashes of World War II simmer, the Communist regime is looking for a really useful propaganda tool. Their idea is to send a baby-faced bunch of “genuine” peasants on the road to spread the Red gospel under the guise of performing the unsophisticated native songs of their Polish homeland. It’s a reality show, Stalin-style.
“No more will the talents of the people go to waste!” claims some commissar or other as these kids in dirndls and lederhosen smile and dance their way around Europe.
Zula’s star quality is immediately apparent to Wiktor, one of the judges overseeing the audition, but less so to his female counterpart. She’s skeptical of both the girl’s authenticity and her history – something about her doing jail time for killing her father. “He mistook me for my mother,” Zula calmly explains. “So I used a knife to show him the difference.”
Whatever the truth, Wiktor, who’s more jazz pianist than Commie propagandist, is smitten. Though he’s considerably older than she, they begin an affair that ping-pongs around post-war Europe.
But the course of true love never did…well, you know…and besides, we’re not sure this is true love. At least, from Zula’s side. The epitome of a certain kind of self-serving sunniness, Zula can turn on the charm when she wishes, then snap like a rabid dog. Even after she betrays Wiktor to the authorities and marries someone else (“I did it for us”), his devotion is unwavering. Or perhaps, addiction would be a better word.
Blue-eyed and plump-cheeked with a radiant smile, Kulig calls to mind everyone from Bridget Bardot to Hayley Mills to Liv Ullmann. Her Zula is a fresh-faced femme fatale, a Trapp Family Singer crossed with Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity.”
In a less showy role, Kot is every bit her equal. He’s playing a man in love with an illusion, a man who knows better, but can’t tear himself away.
Together, they are a couple dancing on the abyss – one made up of a broken Europe and their own misplaced dreams. Rarely has a heartfelt film seemed so chilly.