REVIEW: Oscar-nominated ‘Cold War’ delivers a painfully gorgeous love story

Cameron Hoover

Real love stories don’t usually play out like they do in the movies. Watch enough cheesy Hallmark movies or films adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels, and it’s hard not to begin imagining a world where relationships go one way: You meet, you fall in love, you argue once or twice, you make up, happily ever after.

Nominated for three Academy Awards — for Best Foreign Language Film, another for best director for Paweł Pawlikowski and finally for Best Cinematography — “Cold War” isn’t interested in wasting its audience’s time with non-authentic portrayals of love. The film closes on a black screen where Pawlikowski dedicates the film to his parents, giving the movie an extra layer of realness that shines through in every achingly beautiful frame.


Title: Cold War

Director: Paweł Pawlikowski

Starring: Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cédric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar

Writers: Paweł Pawlikowski, Janusz Głowacki, Piotr Borkowski

Runtime: 88 minutes

“Cold War” follows Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) as they meet in Poland a year after the end of World War II. Zula is an enigmatic performer with a troupe of singers and dancers, and Wiktor is the group’s composer who falls in love with Zula at first sight during her audition. What transpires over the next 88 minutes is nothing short of some of the purest cinema to come out of the last year.

Even though most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t know Pawlikowski from a hole in the ground, make no mistake about his Oscar nomination this year. Like Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” Pawlikowski’s film comes from an intensely personal self-exploration that culminates in a brutally honest love letter to — and reconciliation with — his parents.  

Zula and Wiktor are in love; that much is plain to see. But just because someone loves another or they make them feel a sense of belonging doesn’t necessarily mean the match is made perfectly. The couple fight. They scream at each other and engage in extramarital affairs. It’s imperfect and it’s messy, but that’s entirely Pawlikowski’s point. He could’ve easily followed the formulaic romance film archetypes of yesteryear, but he chose to go a more realistic route, and “Cold War” is all the more fascinating for it.

The film wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does without the exemplary work of Kulig and Kot in the two leads. The actors portray the lovers with such a broken dejectedness that the audience never loses that feeling of longing for the film’s fleeting moments of serenity and misguided joy. There’s little to no hope in Kulig’s and Kot’s performances, but there is the hope that hope will find them one day, and that line is toed so beautifully by the two performers.

The black-and-white cinematography in “Cold War” is downright breathtaking. The wide array of composition styles and lighting range from Tarkovsky-like wides to American Gothic style close-ups. Łukasz Żal deserves to be commended for his exemplary work; his cinematography adds an entirely different layer to an already beautifully directed and acted piece of art.

Żal’s camera stays on the characters, lingers more than anything, really. We see their face change as different emotions come to the fore, and we see them for who they actually are, the full picture instead of fleeting images.

Pawlikowski attempted to tell his parents’ story in a succinct fashion, which both helps and hurts the overall product. “Cold War” is straight and to the point; it trusts its audience enough to get the message across without bloviating for hours on end. But the tale does take place over 10 years, and with a few different locations and time periods to switch between, sometimes character changes and decisions seem jarring.

Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is an absolutely beautiful portrait of love between broken people in a land and time that might not be ready for love anyway. It’s hauntingly real, and it gives a legitimate credence to the Polish director’s recent Oscar nomination. He probably won’t win, but it’s phenomenal to see his name in the conversation.


Cameron Hoover is a film critic. Contact him at [email protected].