Thursday 13 September 2018

Brief encounters: "Cold War"

It's now very clear that something snapped into focus for the writer-director Pawel Pawlikowski after 2011's The Woman in the Fifth, a sprawling project that cut him adrift in a relatively unfamiliar country clutching a story he didn't entirely know what to do with. The corrective to the creative funk he'd slipped into in the years following 2000's Last Resort and 2004's My Summer of Love was not to go big, but instead fashion loaded miniatures, starting with 2013's Ida, a return to first principles - home turf, a mother tongue, the 4:3 ratio cineastes of a certain age were raised on - which opened to glowing reviews and appreciable box-office, and eventually went on to win the Oscar. Where Ida was founded on religion, Pawlikowski's new film Cold War has music in its heart and soul, which may make it a more approachable proposition yet. It opens in the Poland of 1949, where we find an Alan Lomax-like figure, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), doing the rounds of muddy, snowy villages in a van with two sidekicks, collecting folk songs that have been passed down through the ages. The recording, it transpires, is no mere caprice: Wiktor is the conductor at a new musical academy established by the Communists in an abandoned stately home, where his aim is to assemble an ensemble that might best represent the nation at home and overseas.

Already, there is much evidence of Pawlikowski using his spare, pared-down frames to get at something bigger. We spend barely ten minutes inside the Academy building, yet it is swiftly established as a symbol of post-War reconstruction, a means of reasserting national identity after the obfuscating smoke and myriad other horrors of the Nazi occupation. (The songs Wiktor is set to collect in his day job are as much survivors as the people who sing them.) It will also be the site of a new romantic beginning. During the audition process, Wiktor's eye lingers an extra beat or two upon Zula (Joanna Kulig), a combative young prole with a smoky, ballroom-ready voice. Initially, she presents as merely "the one with the fringe", trailing intriguing rumours that she may once have done for her own father, yet something clicks between the pair. A star is born, and a potential svengali - yet mid-20th century European history runs along very different lines, setting these two star-crossed lovers on divergent trajectories. As they spend the next decade bouncing around like pinballs - sometimes together, more often apart - we're given cause to wonder: can you ever really be a star in a system that privileges the collective over the individual? Is it possible for people to live happily together on a continent busy putting up walls and bringing down curtains?

Big questions, surprisingly small movie. Cold War raises and resolves these issues within ninety minutes, organising its field research via considered stylistic choices. The Academy frame - there may be a droll pun here - and Lukasz Zal's monochrome photography serve as authorial acknowledgements of the way the movies shaped the way we saw life as it was lived in this particular moment. Yet more so than homage, what you notice is the remarkable precision with which Pawlikowski uses his square canvas. When Wiktor first puts Zula through her vocal paces in his quarters, a painting of a black-clad, impossibly single-looking figure haunts the top-right corner of the image; more generally, the filmmaker uses 4:3 to arrange his players in Jancsó-like rows and groups that suggest the place of individuals within history, and to concentrate his light sources on the exact right spots. One of the reasons critics have warmed to Pawlikowski's homecoming films - in a way we never quite did to the unravelling The Woman in the Fifth - is that they're just so neat, reassuring us there will always be a cinema to speak of (and write about) so long as handsome people can be lined up before a lens. More so than The Artist, more than La La Land, Cold War is the closest any 21st century release has come to matching the look of the ideal "classic movie" cinephiles (and presumably cineastes) have on perpetual play in their heads, which is an achievement in itself, and presumably accounts for the preponderance of five-star reviews. (It's no coincidence that our lovers should eventually reunite in 1950s Paris, where the very idea of this classic cinema was being decided upon.)

So why did I walk away from Cold War a shade underwhelmed? Firstly, because the emotion held within these films should spill over into the audience; in this respect, this work of extraordinarily alluring surfaces suffers by comparison with its predecessor. Much of the Wiktor-Zula romance plays out off-camera, before the cry of action and after the call of cut, which is risky: Kot and Kulig pull some of what's been elided into view, and make their rare moments of intimacy count, but the emotions written into Cold War seemed to me to run fast, which is not the same as deep. Ida, which achieved near-perfect balance and weight, felt at every turn grounded, if not by its recurring shots of mantel-wearing nuns trudging through heavy snow on the road to enlightenment, then by the heavy secrets these characters carried around within them. Cold War, by contrast, makes a motif of filming its largely passive leads being carried away on some current, fluvial or political: the unromantic, mooring business of how and why these characters travel from here to there and back again has been deemed surplus to requirements. This sweeps us up in the onward rush of history Pawlikowski intends to describe, certainly, and furthermore gathers material guaranteed to make one's head spin and heart race: I frequently found myself succumbing to the film's charms, lying back and thinking of Poland. It is, however, but an eye-catching fling, all over before it's really started, too much the miniature to get its hooks into the grand themes and passions it longs to embrace. Pawlikowski, who dedicates the film to his parents, might well ask: isn't any amount of time spent with a loved one too short? Isn't life? To which I would respectfully respond: yes, but isn't it the job of cinema to stop time, spin it out, even reverse it? When we hand over our money to the cashier, aren't we paying to put this rapidly ridiculous world on hold for a while?

Cold War is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema.

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